Katrina’s local lesson: When the Big One hits, we’re on our own

The strangest story this week is that President Bush is visiting the Gulf Coast as part of a public relations blitz on the first anniversary of Katrina.

Good spin on Katrina? Only the White House dream merchants could conjure up that scenario.

If Katrina showed us anything, it’s that most of the American public has minimal faith in any government’s ability to protect them from a cataclysmic event. And that’s why anyone who lives in California should be shuddering at the federal response to the nation’s most recent big natural disaster.

City, state and federal officials had several days to prepare for Hurricane Katrina, and New Orleans still faces years of rebuilding and doubt. Residents of San Francisco, Los Angeles and other major cities sitting on top of active fault lines know well that the next Big One will strike without warning. Given the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response to a disaster it knew was coming, it hardly inspires confidence that we’re in good hands.

Five years ago, FEMA held a training session for emergency preparedness officials around the country that focused on the three mostly likely catastrophes to hit the United States. The list included a terrorist strike in New York. After that was the prospect of a full-force hurricane slamming New Orleans.

Both of those events have already occurred. Guess which fabled West Coast city placed third on the list?Earlier this year, San Francisco marked the 100th anniversary of the 1906 quake with many celebrations and official gatherings. And based on our knowledge of past seismic events and the areas that have been found to be most vulnerable, it’s probably safe to say that state and local officials are about as prepared as they could be — or at least they tell us so.

But the lessons from Katrina tell us that bureaucracies are no match for the forces of nature. FEMA has proved time and again that it is ill-equipped to deal with large-scale events, even when it can see them coming. Art Agnos, who was The City’s mayor when Loma Prieta struck in 1989, said the bloated organization has always put regulations and paperwork above the real needs of people — and, White House reassurances aside, there is no evidence that has changed. One official with the nonpartisan Brookings Institution think tank called FEMA’s

response “the most cumbersome, slow response we've ever seen.”

Recent national polls indicate Americans have diminished faith in the country’s ability to grapple with major emergencies. Nearly two thirds of those surveyed say they believe the nation is ill-prepared to handle disasters. Based on the experience with Katrina, poor people feel like they are the most likely victims of the next disaster — and that factor is not likely to change whether you live in the Bay Area or the Big Easy.

One year later, the federal government has spent less than half of the money allocated for Katrina’s recovery and reconstruction, which is why elected officials in the Gulf Coast say the region is still going through an unfolding disaster. Even backers of the Bush administration admit the response has been slow, and federal officials admit they don’t even know where billions of dollars in aid were spent.

So it’s no surprise that Democrats are staging a mini-convention in Mississippi this week, trying to capitalize on what they see as a major failing of the Republican administration. They’ll have some vivid pictures to share — many of the Gulf Coast areas hit by Katrina remain virtually uninhabitable.

President Bush is scheduled to attend a prayer service in New Orleans today, and no doubt he must be hoping Ernesto — the first seasonal tropical storm expected to enter the gulf this week — doesn’t hit with any of the brute force Katrina displayed. And he’ll likely be praying that if it does, FEMA will be able to do the unthinkable and respond quickly, efficiently and with a great deal more compassion than it seemed to show at this point last year.

But for those of us living on the West Coast, creative, managed spin is not going to make life on the fault line any safer. For that, I’d recommend extra water, batteries, food, a stash of cash and all the other things the experts say we should have the next time the tectonic plates shift.

As anyone who has ever felt the power of a major earthquake can attest, it only takes a few seconds to feel an utter sense of helplessness. And you’ll likely be placing a lot more emphasis on divine intervention than government intervention when it hits.

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