This time

September 23, 2005

With Hurricane Rita primed to slam the Texas and Louisiana coastline tomorrow, Americans confront a critical question: How many monster storms will it take to learn how to adequately prepare for and respond to them?

The answer, we hope, will be just one - the preparedness-and-response debacle that was Katrina.

No amount of human effort can mollify the destructiveness of hurricanes like Rita, the third-most-intense on record in the Atlantic Basin. But if Katrina ends up serving any good purpose at all, it might be that it will make Hurricane Rita less lethal - by having alerted everyone, from the White House down to the residents of Galveston Island, to be more fully prepared.

Of course, Rita already has become a major political test for the Bush administration, which rightly was held accountable for the fatal flaws in the emergency response to Katrina and thus has vowed immediate and sweeping corrections.

So even as the death toll from Katrina was spiking to 1,000 - as relief workers in New Orleans began hacking into locked houses and finding more bodies - much effort was being expended in Washington yesterday to show that this White House has taken heed.

Has it?

Katrina's most immediate lessons boil down to the need for speedy response before and after such storms - which hinges on positioning of sufficient resources to aid evacuees and victims. As of yesterday, at least, that appears to be happening pre-Rita, for the most part.

In contrast to Katrina, the federal government has declared Rita to be an "incident of national significance," thereby launching a federal response, before the storm hit. Mandatory evacuation orders were issued in sufficient advance of the storm's landfall. Public transportation appears to have been available to those without cars. All but a relative few hospital and nursing home patients reportedly have been moved out of harm's way.

Most significantly, National Guard and military units, having been called to cope with Katrina's aftermath, are on alert nearby to provide rescues, security, food, water, medical care and emergency communications.

That's not to say there weren't serious problems in advance of Rita. Houston evacuation routes were much more stop than go yesterday, causing some residents to turn back home; the region was dangerously running out of gasoline. The city's airports were jammed, too, after many federal security workers didn't show up for work. And with 21 plants that handle a quarter of the nation's oil-refining capacity directly in Rita's path and some major pipelines to the rest of the nation already shutting down yesterday, the country as a whole was bracing for a sharply heightened fuel crisis.

But for now, the most immediate lessons - all about saving lives - must be front and center. Big storms are unpredictable; Rita could throw any number of nasty curves or worse. Let's hope Katrina has better prepared the nation for them.

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