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Friday, September 2, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Forewarned ... but unprepared

Newhouse News Service

WASHINGTON — No one can say they didn't see it coming.

Officials from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama for years have been warning about their vulnerability to storms that swirl menacingly in the Gulf of Mexico every hurricane season.

Now, after one of the worst storms in history, serious questions are being asked about the lack of preparation.

Local officials say the damage might not have been nearly as bad had Washington heeded their warnings about the dire need for hurricane protection — including fortifying homes, building up levees and repairing barrier islands.

"If we had been investing resources in restoring our coast, it wouldn't have prevented the storm, but the barrier islands would have absorbed some of the tidal surge," said Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-La. "People's lives are at stake. We need to take this more seriously."

The level of devastation from a storm that everyone agreed was not a "worst-case scenario" has focused attention on whether policymakers took the much-heralded threat seriously and whether adequate plans are in place for future natural disasters.

Warning signs have been everywhere. More people than ever are living near hurricane-prone coastlines, earthquake fault lines, forest fire-prone areas and in flood plains, a trend that has created a landscape of expanding risk.

Not surprisingly, disaster costs are rising to levels unheard of a generation ago, posing a growing problem for insurers, governments and people in harm's way. The number of federal emergency disaster declarations doubled from an average of 23 a year during 1980-84 to 53 a year during 2000-2004.

Hurricane Andrew set a record of more than $30 billion in losses in 1992, followed quickly by California's Northridge earthquake the next year, which cost more than $40 billion. Many believe the cost of Hurricane Katrina will exceed that of Andrew.

"We've been on this trajectory for about 15 years. We're seeing increasingly bigger disasters and increasingly higher losses," said Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center at the University of Colorado. "Now just about any place a hurricane is going to come in, it's going to hit a developed area. This is the way it's going to be from now on."

Disaster and emergency experts have warned for years that governments, especially the federal government, have put so much stress on disaster response that they have neglected policies to minimize a disaster's impact in advance.

"In the same way that Hurricane Andrew was a wake-up call to Florida, this storm will be a wake-up call to Louisiana and Mississippi," said Robert Hartwig, chief economist for the Insurance Information Institute. "It's going to be very evident that there were an enormous number of vulnerabilities that weren't addressed. There's going to be a lot of finger-pointing."

Louisiana's elected officials were quick to seize on the disaster to press for long-requested federal financial assistance in shoring up Louisiana's coastline. The coastal wetlands erode at a rate of 25 square miles a year and expose southern Louisiana to increasing danger.

Efforts to squeeze coastal-protection money out of Washington have met with resistance in recent years. The Louisiana congressional delegation urged Congress this year to dedicate a stream of federal money to Louisiana's coast, only to be opposed by the White House. A deal ultimately was struck to steer $540 million to the state over four years. The total coast of repair work is estimated to be $14 billion.

In its budget, the Bush administration also had proposed a significant reduction in funding for southeast Louisiana's chief hurricane protection project. Bush proposed $10.4 million, one-sixth of what local officials say they need.

Some critics said that in a post-Sept. 11 world, when the Department of Homeland Security is focused on preventing another terrorist attack, not enough emphasis is being placed on preparing for natural disasters.

A case in point, they say, is the decision to take away from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) its historic responsibility for disaster preparedness. The agency, part of Homeland Security, now will focus on postdisaster search and rescue.

Homeland Security plans to create a new Directorate of Preparedness, covering planning for both terrorism and natural disasters. But it is still on the drawing board.

Russ Knocke, a Homeland Security spokesman, said the reorganization will lead to better disaster preparation.

But experts in disaster planning say it already has sown confusion among those on the front lines of preparing for disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

"It's very confusing to the state and local governments," said James Lee Witt, the FEMA director in the Clinton administration. "Who do they go to and how is it going to be coordinated now? It's really going to be fragmented."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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