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Commentary: Will we be ready for the next disaster?

  • Story Highlights
  • Foresman: Unlike Katrina, Gustav so far shows good government coordination
  • The real test will come in the next 96 hours, Foresman says
  • Foresman: It was right for nation to give Gulf Coast extraordinary support
  • Now we face massive need to prepare rest of nation for 21st century crises, he says
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By George Foresman
CNN Contributor
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Editor's Note: George Foresman, a CNN contributor, is former Homeland Security Undersecretary of Preparedness. He joined DHS shortly after Hurricane Katrina following 22 years in Virginia's homeland security and emergency management agencies. He's a RAND Corporation consultant and a consultant to companies that make portable shelters for sale to military and retail outlets.

(CNN) -- For the past week, many have been transfixed by the eerie predictions and essential preparations in advance of Hurricane Gustav.

There has been the incessant comparison to another hurricane just three years ago -- Katrina. The almost nightmarish anticipation surrounding the storm is giving way to stark reality.

Without any doubt, thousands of Americans will be touched by the inevitable devastation that accompanies Mother Nature's calamities -- in today's case, Gustav.

For some the effects will be minor while for others the impact on their homes, businesses and communities will be catastrophic. But for all, this storm underscores the importance of preparedness.

By all accounts, steps taken since Hurricane Katrina have markedly improved the way that state and local agencies along the Gulf readied themselves in advance of Gustav. Nowhere is it more apparent than in Louisiana. Better plans, rehearsed and tested procedures and clear leadership have allowed the orderly movement of nearly 2 million people out of harm's way. Stories from those who stayed behind

Federal agencies that bore the brunt of criticism after Katrina have been busy ensuring the right types of support to their local and state counterparts. Citizens for the most part have both heeded and embraced guidance about the steps they needed to take to be safer and more secure -- emboldened by memories from three years ago but also better informed and better educated.

Yet the simple fact remains that this test is far from over.

Over the next 48 hours, it will become apparent to individuals and a nation whether this was, in fact, "the big one." Government officials and news organizations will spring into action as they seek to gauge the scope and severity of Gustav. Relief efforts will begin. Problems will emerge. Heroic stories will surface.

Given the efforts of the past 96 hours, one might be cautiously optimistic that the response to Hurricane Gustav will turn out to be a good-news story.

The trends of the past couple of years show that when well-prepared, community and state government organizations, businesses and citizens confront everything from wildfires to tornadoes to floods and are able to harness federal help in the right way and at the right time so the devastating impacts of a crisis can be lessened.

This is not to say there won't be problems over the next several days, weeks and months. We should expect to see many -- because disasters are a series of problems that demand attention and solutions.

But measuring the effectiveness of the collective national response to Hurricane Gustav should not hinge on the number of problems, but rather the ability of community, state and national organizations to both discover and then begin solving them.

The extraordinary commitment of the federal government, especially to help Louisiana move citizens out of harm's way in advance of the storm, is both laudable and expected. How well they help in the next days after the storm will be just as important. Yet, a more fundamental question will remain.

In the days after Katrina in 2005, the federal government embarked on an unprecedented planning effort with state and local officials in Louisiana to prepare for just this evacuation contingency. These plans had the regular attention of both the president and Congress.

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff was regularly quizzed and he regularly quizzed others, demanding both progress and accountability. Yet for all of this, it is one region of the country and one hazard.

Ensuring the right level of preparedness across the entire nation with its diversity of communities, capabilities and hazards is just as important as what we have seen thus far along the Gulf Coast, especially for events that do not -- like Gustav -- give us more than a week to get ready.

America's preparedness must be supported, and not centered, in Washington, D.C. While unprecedented resources were marshaled by the federal government over the past five days, the next disaster is more likely to occur elsewhere and likely to occur with little or no warning.

No other place in America has had this level of federal governmental planning and resource commitment for evacuations, and it's not that that is wrong. But it underscores the massive need to truly prepare everywhere in America for 21st-century crises.

These proactive efforts in Louisiana have now set the bar at a level that many areas of the nation are not going to meet. To be clear, the benefit will be lives saved and a repeat of Katrina averted. It is the right course of action.

Over the longer term our national goal must be to improve America's preparedness -- not singularly dependent on the marshalling of federal resources but rather built on greater capabilities in communities and states where disasters leave the deepest scars.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

All About Hurricane KatrinaNatural DisastersU.S. Department of Homeland Security

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