"We have gone from a reactive organization ... to a proactive organization," said FEMA chief David Paulison this weekend.
That's good news for residents of America's Gulf coast as they brace for the arrival of Hurricane Gustav, and a good indicator that governments and emergency service agencies - at all levels - have learned some valuable lessons from the Katrina debacle of three years ago.
According to this report from the Associated Press, Federal Emergency Management Agency's Paulison and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff have already visited the region to monitor developments, and Chertoff was returning on Sunday. Equipment and people were put in position and safe shelters readied, with cots, blankets and hygiene kits en route. Meanwhile, the military was flying 1,500 civilian critical care patients from Louisiana and Texas to safer locations over the weekend.
Paulison - who, apparently doesn't share his predecessor's overriding concern over whether or not his shirt sleeves should be rolled-up when meeting with the press - said during a briefing Saturday that the entire mobilization is "much, much different than we saw three years ago." The kind of resources being put in place now and the coordination with local officials, all before the storm, are things that didn't happen until afterward last time, he said.
That includes mobilizing the National Guard now. From my own first-hand experience, this can make a critical difference.
In 1972, during Tropical Storm Agnes, Pennsylvania cities on the banks of the Susquehanna River were smashed and inundated when the dikes on both banks gave way. I was on the west bank, in the city of Kingston, when it happened. Unlike New Orleans in 2005, the National Guard was already on the scene - aiding state and local efforts, carrying supplies and personnel by chopper back-and-forth across what had become 3-mile-wide river, trucking people out of harm's way to relief centers, and closing the area down to looters and others who sought to take advantage of the situation.
In 1972, President Richard Nixon kept in close touch with our flood-ravaged region and dispatched a man from Washington to coordinate relief and recovery efforts. The word today is that the Bush administration will show the same level of commitment and concern. The president, according to that same AP report, has already checked in with governors and federal officials Saturday to make sure Washington was doing all it can. He prepared for the possibility of travel to the region and designated a number of areas eligible for federal help ahead of Hurricane Gustav's landfall.
It's been noted that the Bush White House was badly burned by its fumbling response after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August, 2005. This time, a Bush spokesman reports, the president is already receiving regular updates from officials and aides about the storm's path and the government's preparations, and planned to visit the FEMA operations center. The president asked each governor if the federal government was providing the help they need and pledged "the full support" of his administration, the spokesman added.
In fact, it is now being reported that the president will skip the Republican National Convention and will instead monitor Hurricane Gustav from Texas. Political punditz out there might suggest that's a good thing for the Republican Party.
Maybe it is, maybe it isn't ... but either way, it's still good news for those in Gustav's path.