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Six years after Katrina, praise for Irene response

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Lessons learned from Irene
  • "FEMA 2.0" learned lessons from Katrina, ex-Homeland Security official says
  • Early calls for evacuations were important, Honore says
  • Katrina killed more than 1,700 people when it struck on August 29, 2005
  • The name became shorthand for a botched response to a crisis

Tune in to "Piers Morgan Tonight" at 9 ET for a closer look at how the media and government reacted to Hurricane Irene. Was it too much, and how much did it cost?

New York (CNN) -- Six years after "Katrina" became shorthand for a botched response to a crisis, authorities at all levels of government are winning praise for their handling of Hurricane Irene.

"Who would have thought, here we are, six years later, and instead of debating failures, we're debating being overprepared?" Chad Sweet, who served as chief of staff to former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, said Monday. "I think it's a good thing."

As Irene headed for the East Coast over the weekend, governors and mayors from the Carolinas to New England ordered residents to leave low-lying coastal areas. President Barack Obama cut his summer vacation a day short to return to Washington, pledging to make sure federal agencies "are doing everything in their power" to help after the storm moved inland Sunday.

Though it lost steam as it moved toward New York, Irene still killed 21 people in nine states and caused flooding as far north as Vermont. An estimated 3 million remained without power Monday.

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Katrina, by comparison, killed 1,464 people in Louisiana, 238 in Mississippi and 21 in other states after it struck the Gulf Coast as a Category 3 hurricane on August 29, 2005. It flattened much of coastal Mississippi and flooded New Orleans when the city's protective levees failed, leaving tens of thousands stranded.

While some agencies like the Coast Guard won praise for their rescue efforts, the slow and disengaged response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency was a major embarrassment for the Bush administration. A bipartisan investigation by Congress called it "a national failure" at all levels of government, "an abdication of the most solemn obligation to provide for the common welfare."

But Sweet told CNN's "American Morning" that FEMA appears to have learned hard lessons since then. The agency that has responded to Irene under Director Craig Fugate is "FEMA 2.0," one that tries to stay ahead of events and embraces social media to communicate.

"What Mr. Fugate is doing is prepositioning the assets before the storm hits and being there," he said. "We've heard this across the board, whether it's Republican or Democratic leaders across the states, thanking FEMA for being forward-leaning. That's the right model."

Sweet also praised leaders like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for sounding the alarms early and working closely with FEMA and other federal agencies.

"We saw leadership in close collaboration as a team," he said.

And retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who led the military response to Katrina, told that early calls to evacuate were "the right thing to do."

"I've been in the storm business for years, and I've never seen officials be prudent enough to cancel commercial and sporting events before a storm," he said. "Folks in the Northeast did that. The day before Katrina, we had a football game in Baton Rouge. That's how far the community has come."

The name "Katrina" quickly became a standard-issue epithet after the 2005 disaster. Critics tried to dub the 2010 Gulf oil disaster "Obama's Katrina," while a paralyzing Northeastern blizzard the following December became either "Christie's Katrina" or "Bloomberg's Katrina," depending on one's side of the Hudson and political bent.

Ahead of Irene, Fugate -- a veteran of numerous hurricanes in his previous job as Florida's emergency management chief -- dismissed suggestions that the warnings being issued were tinged by fears of a repeat of the 2005 storm.

"This is how I've always been operating," he told CNN's "Piers Morgan Tonight" on Friday. "This is how we did it when I was in Florida. This is what we do here in the president's administration, as we bring the team together. We get the team ready. We prepare for the worst and hope for the best. But we're not going to wait to find how bad it is before we get ready."