- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Federal officials are working around the clock to complete repairs to Louisiana’s levee system in time for the looming hurricane season.

“We have a mandate to return the hurricane protection system to pre-Katrina levels by June 1,” said Paul Johnston, spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, noting that the completion date coincides with the beginning of hurricane season. “The folks out there are really working like crazy. We’ve got folks pounding steel 24 hours a day.”

More than 250 Army Corps officials and 1,500 construction workers have completed half the work required since the storm hit more than six months ago, but Mr. Johnston said the other half can and will be finished in 10 weeks.

“We did more than one year’s work in just six months, and there’s a tremendous amount of work to do in a very short period of time,” Mr. Johnston said.

Aided by dry weather but hampered by a lack of manpower, crews repaired nearly 100 miles of the 169-mile-long levee system, which is being built at higher levels in many areas to protect New Orleans from another devastating storm.

“We are going to be ready,” said R. David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), where officials are working weekends in preparation.

Mr. Paulison, who replaced embattled director Michael D. Brown, said he meets three times a week with Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff as they reorganize the agency.

“We’re picking through all of those lessons learned from Katrina, Rita and Wilma to get what worked and what didn’t work to get it fixed quickly,” Mr. Paulison said.

“Situational awareness,” or eyes on the ground, is what worked for Wilma in Florida, where 300 FEMA officials were dispatched to the governor’s homeland security office.

Mr. Chertoff told firefighters this week that the federal government will not override state and local officials and that department officials, including the Coast Guard and FEMA, will be coordinated locally this summer.

The most important first responders will be the people in the storm’s path, Mr. Chertoff told the International Association of Fire Fighters legislative conference Monday in Washington.

People who choose to stay behind and weather the storm must have contingency plans and supplies to last 48 hours, Mr. Chertoff said.

“If people who are able-bodied and have the means don’t take steps to sustain themselves in that first couple of days in an emergency … then they are distracting responders and firefighters from helping those who simply don’t have the ability to help themselves or don’t have the means to help themselves,” Mr. Chertoff said.

A system similar to that used by UPS is being put into place to track food, water and ice supplies in real time using Global Positioning System satellites, a lesson learned after Katrina. Mr. Paulison said officials previously had no way to contact drivers on the road to redirect supplies.

“Katrina was an overwhelming event, and the system was not set up to deal with a catastrophe of that size,” Mr. Paulison said. “We have to be more nimble, more agile and less bureaucratic.”

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