WASHINGTON -- Three years after disgracing itself with a bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency acknowledged Monday, as it mobilized against the force of Gustav, that it had learned some lessons.
Nearly 2 million Gulf Coast residents were evacuated to shelters by plane, train and bus hours before Hurricane Gustav hit Louisiana. Helicopters sat on the fringes to start search-and-rescue efforts as soon as the skies cleared. Crates of food, water and blankets were at the ready all in stark contrast to the too-little-too-late response to Katrina that left thousands stranded, about 1,800 dead and 90,000 square miles devastated.
"All those who needed to be evacuated were evacuated . . . in one way, shape or form," FEMA Deputy Director Harvey E. Johnson Jr. announced at a Washington news conference, where comparisons to the 2005 drowning of New Orleans seemed aimed at repairing FEMA's damaged reputation. "I think we've seen a very well-prepared nation for Hurricane Gustav."
But as the storm continued to pound Louisiana with Hurricane Hanna ramping up in the wings officials were hesitant to declare success too soon. Damage assessments would not begin until this morning, and there was no way of knowing how many people would be left dead or homeless by the Category 2 Gustav, which was testing the levees and threatening severe flooding in southern Louisiana.
"We would not be pounding our chest at this point," said Maj. Gen. Don T. Riley of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, one of many agencies working under FEMA to coordinate the response.
Three patients died this weekend during an effort to move 9,000 sick and infirm people by air and ambulance, most of them from nursing homes.
"If you recall in Katrina, we had scores of deaths in hospital patients. While we accept no deaths, we feel this is something within our margin of error," said W. Craig Vanderwagen, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services. He said an investigation would be conducted.
Though the top priorities were getting residents to shelter and helping them there, government officials also seemed intent on erasing impressions of bureaucratic callousness. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff headed to the region, mingling at bus and train terminals with rescue workers and residents and showing his concern.
He and First Lady Laura Bush appeared on Monday's network morning shows to tout the progress made. And President Bush, who faced scathing criticism after Katrina, canceled his speech at the Republican National Convention and flew to Texas to monitor the storm's advance. He offered restrained praise, saying coordination this time was "a lot better" than before.
Government investigations after Katrina determined that FEMA had shown poor planning and lack of urgency in dealing with the storm.
Citing planning and early action as the greatest lessons learned, Chertoff said evacuations this time began as much as 36 hours earlier than with Katrina.
"It gave us the ability, first of all, to deal with unexpected problems that arose and also to make sure we could focus on the people with medical needs, who are a very challenging population to evacuate. And I'm pleased to say that it looks like [we] got everybody out before the storm," Chertoff said.
FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison, who accompanied Bush to Texas on Air Force One, said in an on-board news briefing that there had been "unprecedented cooperation" among federal agencies and the private sector.
"What it allows us to do is share information of what's going on so we don't end up with what happened in Katrina, with different agencies doing things and others not knowing what's happening," he said.
Now, Johnson noted, "Act 2 is about to unfold" as FEMA works to house storm refugees who may not be able to return to their homes for days or weeks. About 45,000 people were being sheltered Sunday night, and it was not clear how many would have homes to return to.
Evoking memories of the famous FEMA trailers, Johnson said the first priority would be to use existing structures, quickly repairing dwellings that can be fixed and providing rental assistance. The next step would be mobile homes and cottages, which he suggested might be an improvement as well.
"We've seen creative designs since Katrina, and that's our plan for the upcoming season," Johnson said.
A locater network to help reunite families has also been established. It can be accessed by calling (800) 588-9822.