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A Sentinel of the South Hopes Nation Listens

Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) represents New Orleans, so it’s not surprising that she takes seriously the topic of hurricane readiness. But as the chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Subcommittee on Disaster Preparedness, she has become a sentinel, trying to sound the alarm for the nation as a whole regarding the urgency of addressing gaps in overall response capabilities before the next calamity. To drive home the point that it could take any form and hit any region, she plans to follow a recent hearing on hurricanes with one on earthquakes, and she’ll show a film depicting damage scientists say is probable when the next quake hits—not in Los Angeles but in Memphis.

The importance of preparedness was also the focus of another Senate subcommittee that took up the issue of a possible pandemic. Speaking at that hearing, Stephen M. Ostroff, M.D., emphasized the unpredictable nature of influenza as exemplified by the recent H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak.

“We’ve built many of our flu plans and exercises around the threat of avian influenza,” he told the subcommittee. “And then right in our own backyard…a new flu strain sweeps out of nowhere and upsets many of our basic assumptions,” including what type of disease to look for “and how long it would take to reach our shores.”

Both hearings reviewed recent experiences for lessons learned. In the case of the swine flu, Ostroff noted, “Laboratory bottlenecks rapidly developed when specimens were being sent” for confirmation to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, revealing the need “to enhance our laboratory capacity and better automate our surveillance activities.”

Landrieu’s hearing examined lessons from Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. Major General Frank Grass of the U.S. Northern Command noted that nursing homes and hospitals wait until the last minute to ask for patient rescue, which creates a demand that exceeds available resources. Landrieu ran through a list of other issues, including a shortage of generators for gas stations and hospitals and shelters that were sent evacuees but had no cots or blankets. She also highlighted the problem of using schools for shelters—which prevents the resumption of classes.

W. Craig Fugate, the new head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, acknowledged the need for improvements but noted that the solutions can’t all come from Washington, D.C. It’s important to broker public and private resources, he said, and for individuals to “understand that they have a role to be as prepared as they can.”

George Foresman, representing a new private sector group called the Corporate Crisis Response Officers Association, agreed, noting that the private sector can play a far larger role in emergency response than it currently does. His group is working on efforts to muster private resources. But he also noted dismay at the number of businesses large and small that still operate on the assumption that government will do everything when a crisis hits.