Bush administration vows Gustav response will be different

Preparing before the hurricane hits marks a major divergence from Katrina plans, agency officials say.

Top federal disaster officials led by Homeland Security Department Secretary Michael Chertoff promised during a whirlwind trip to Louisiana on Thursday a better and more coordinated response to Hurricane Gustav than they provided after Hurricane Katrina.

Comment on this article in The Forum.Chertoff and David Paulison, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, held press conferences with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in the state's capital of Baton Rouge as well as New Orleans to send the message that the government is organizing ahead of Gustav's landfall, predicted to hit anywhere between Texas and the panhandle ofFlorida. The federal government was heavily criticized for its slow response to the Katrina, which slammed the Gulf Coast three years ago on Friday.

How the government responded to "Katrina after the storm made landfall are [now] happening before," Paulison said. "What you are seeing is an entire culture change in how emergency management systems are going to work.''

Louisiana plans to start evacuations on Friday or Saturday, and Mississippi declared a state of emergency. FEMA said on Thursday. Unlike Katrina, officials have stored a massive amount of supplies in the Gulf Coast region in preparation for Gustav.

"We've all worked very, very hard over the last two years in planning and training and assessing and exercising and being ready for the next big hurricane, and Gustav is going to be it," Harvey Johnson, FEMA's deputy administrator, said during a multiagency press conference.

The Coast Guard has formed a deployable operations support group to help coordinate its response to hurricanes, a team that did not exist before Katrina. "We're as ready as we have ever been," said Rear Adm. Brian Johnson, Coast Guard assistant commandant for maritime safety, security and stewardship.

The Transportation Security Administration also has refined its disaster plans since Katrina and has 350 employees, including screeners who can be deployed quickly to the Gulf Coast to support air evacuations from the area, said TSA spokeswoman Andrea McCauley.

But as Gustav increased in intensity on Friday, and as Tropical Storm Hanna continued to gain strength to the east in the Caribbean, Bill Irwin a program director with the Army Corps of Engineers warned that repairs of levees and better food control measures in New Orleans are still works in progress, with completion not expected until 2011.

"There are gaps in the system," which include the Lower 9th Ward, which was devastated by Katrina, Irwin said.

As Louisiana eyes evacuation, Jindal said he activated 5,000 National Guard troops, with 1,500 troops slated for deployment to New Orleans today. The state has 500 buses under contract capable of moving out 35,000 people and has pre-positioned 564,000 military meals ready to eat rations throughout the state.

The Verizon Business unit of Verizon Communications Inc. has 400 employees on stand-by to restore communications circuits in the Gulf Coast, according to spokeswoman Linda Laughlin. She said Verizon Business, which supports commercial and federal customers, has a mobile command center housed in a semitrailer, which includes its own built-in satellite communications system ready for deployment.

The company also has three emergency satellite communications semitrailers on standby and four smaller satellite rigs ready for deployment, Laughlin added.

Verizon Business learned during Katrina that it's difficult to find accommodations for personnel in a disaster area, so it now has a set of three sleeping trailers, which can accommodate 10 people each, and three trailers that house bathrooms and showers.