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Rallying Cry for Irene: Not Katrina, Not Again

Even before hurricane Irene makes landfall, it has already had a powerful impact on millions of Americans rushing to adjust their lives.

A Nasa image of the hurricane bearing down on the Carolina coast on August 26th afternoon.
Nasa
A Nasa image of the hurricane bearing down on the Carolina coast on August 26th afternoon.

In part, this is no surprise for any hurricane targeting such a densely populated area, as residents rush out to snap up supplies of bottled water and D batteries.

But it also represents an attempt to apply the lessons of past emergency-management failures, particularly by federal agencies. With hurricane Irene's current path taking it directly toward the thickly settled Northeast corridor, the nation’s emergency-response capacity is facing scrutiny not seen since hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Even as projections of the storm’s clout weakened on Friday, the official response remained the same: not Katrina, not again.

For Washington’s Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), shamed by a slow and inadequate response to Katrina in 2005, Irene presents a special test. The federal bureaucracy did not mobilize for Katrina – or even follow its own procedures for emergency response.

Hurricane Irene - A CNBC Special Report
Hurricane Irene - A CNBC Special Report

This time, Washington is pushing itself and local officials from the Carolinas to New England to get out ahead of the storm. The National Hurricane Center is mapping storm surges at a worst-case high-tide scenario, and FEMA mobilized assets along the storm paths days ahead.

"We're taking this storm very seriously, and I know that our state and local partners are as well,” said Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano at a teleconference with reporters on Friday. “In fact, we’ve already seen a number of states declare emergencies even ahead of the storm.”

Asked whether the government might be overhyping the threat by comparing hurricane Irene (a weakening Category 2 storm) with Katrina (a strong Category 3 storm), FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told reporters on Friday: “I think when people think of Katrina, they think of the homes that were destroyed with the flooding. And that may be something we see in the storm surge areas along the coast.”

The point of the official warnings and preparation was to save lives, he said. Government may not be able to prevent storm damage or avoid power outages, "But the one thing we can change the outcome on is loss of life, and that's why the evacuation orders that are being issued in the coastal areas are key," he said.

This has resulted in traffic snarls, thousands of airline and event cancellations, and mandatory evacuations affecting millions. But, depending on the aftermath of the storm, that could be part of a new emergency-response normal – at least so long as the sting of Katrina remains.

By Friday morning, hurricane warnings, meaning hurricane conditions could arrive withing 36 hours, extended from the Carolinas to Sandy Hook, N.J. A hurricane watch, meaning hurricane conditions could arrive within 48 hours, were issued north of Sandy Hook up to the Merrimack River in New England, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Biggest Preparations Since 2004

Not since hurricane Isabel in 2004 has the Atlantic Coast, especially New England, prepared for such a powerful storm.

Govs. Andrew Cuomo (D) of New York and Chris Christie (R) of New Jersey declared states of emergency on Thursday. Subway, commuter rail, and buses will be shut down on Saturday across the region.

Hurricane Irene - A CNBC Special Report
Hurricane Irene - A CNBC Special Report

New York City ordered the first mandatory evacuation in the city’shistory, including plans to shut down the city’s subway and transit system. The evacuation order now covers mainly shore areas, affecting some 250,000 residents. If a major hurricane (Category 3 or 4) makes landfall just south of New York City, significant low-lying areas in lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island could be evacuated, according to the New York City map of hurricane evacuation zones. “A major hurricane is unlikely in New York City, but not impossible,” the map notes.

In response to another evacuation order, Atlantic City is shutting down its casinos for only the third time since voters legalized gambling in 1976. More than 1 million residents and tourists, many on buses, joined a surge of traffic in evacuation zones moving away from the coast. The slots and gaming tables must shut down by 8 p.m. on Friday.

Sports, theater, church, and concert events dropped off the calendar as the storm approached. The New York Mets called off baseball games Saturday and Sunday, and the Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies rescheduled Sunday home games. But the US Open tennis tournament is still set to open in New York on Monday.

In Washington, organizers postponed the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, set for Sunday to coincide with the 48th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. That speech, delivered just across the Mall at the Lincoln Memorial, inspired the Memorial’s towering “Stone of Hope” sculpture: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” Some tens of thousands of visitors had been expected in Washington for the event.

After a dismal record coping with hurricane Isabel—when some 6 million people lost power, many for more than a week—power companies say they’re better prepared for Irene. Crews have been working for months to upgrade equipment, trim trees, and overall harden the reliability of the Pepco power system, which runs from the Washington area into New Jersey. When 150 employees of First Energy in Ohio found they weren’t needed in Florida to help cope with Irene, Pepco tapped them to help with the emergency response in the Washington area.

“Despite the skepticism, we believe we’re going to get the job done,” says Bob Hainey, a spokesman for Pepco. But despite all the reliability upgrades, “with 70-mile winds, the trees will not just sway but come down on poles and wires,” he adds.

By midday on Friday, Pepco had sent robocalls to customers to prepare for “potential and likely widespread power outages” this weekend. “Due to the magnitude of the storm, the company expects the restoration effort to extend over multiple days,” Pepco warned.

Irene also poses a formidable threat to the region’s vast boating community from commercial ports up and down the coast to the army of recreational boaters that typically heads out on the water for the last days of summer.

For the US Coast Guard, it’s the most significant challenge since hurricane Isabel. Coast Guard C-130 cargo planes are acting as flying radio stations, broadcasting warning notices on marine-band channels for mariners to take “appropriate action” to avoid the damage from the storm. For recreational boaters, that means getting their boats on trailers and inland to avoid high winds and flying debris in the ports—or doubling up on lines on the pier. For bigger ships, that means getting far out to sea and riding out the storm.

At the same time, the Coast Guard has to protect its own capacity to help with rescues after the storm passes. All four C-130s based in Elizabeth City, N.C., are flying on patrols on Friday, but will move inland as far as West Virginia as the storm approaches. Coast Guard helicopters, too, are moving inland.

“We’re making sure that everybody is aware of what’s in store for them,” says US Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer Steve Carleton. After the storm, the planes and helicopters swing back into service. “As soon as it is safe for them to be airborne, they will do so,” he adds.

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