Efforts to put political spin on the difference between the federal responses to hurricanes Katrina and Rita are, we think, poppycock. As Earl Black, a political scientist at Houston's Rice University, told The Associated Press, "My view is that it's not wise for anybody to make too much partisan hay out of tragedies."
Such political rhetoric misses the true lesson to be learned from these storms, which is how prepared are we, as a local community, for disaster?
The simple truth is that local government was not prepared for Katrina. Neither was state government, and neither was the federal government. The result was one of the worst natural disasters in the nation's history. Lives were lost that likely could have been saved had better plans been in place and been better executed.
But give officials credit for learning their lessons quickly. Two weeks after Katrina, no one took any chances with Rita. Federal officials performed well. State officials performed well. And local officials performed well. As a result, Texas and Louisiana coastal communities survived a major storm with minimal loss of life.
Rita proved that, save for some significant traffic congestion, local, state and federal officials can work together to handle a disaster appropriately.
Our challenge is to make sure our local disaster response plans look more like the Rita model than the Katrina model.
Chuck Vale, Routt County's director of emergency management, has as good of an understanding of disaster preparation as anyone. Vale traveled to Louisiana as a volunteer and saw firsthand the devastation caused by the mixture of a vicious storm and an ineffective government response.
Vale said the most important things he learned are that there has to be a clear chain of command and that local government agencies have to work together to prepare plans for sharing resources quickly and efficiently in an emergency.
"Everything in this county is relationship building," he said. But "at some point, the relationship will not get us there. Who has the authority to make the buses go?"
Vale saw volunteers and supplies were wasted because it wasn't always clear who was responsible for coordinating the relief effort. Often, he said, the government's underwhelming response was overwhelmed by outside assistance.
People, whether they're in new Orleans or Steamboat Springs, deserve better in a time of need, Vale said. "All governments have a responsibility to take care of their citizens."
Obviously, Steamboat is not a hurricane target. But flooding, fires and airplane crashes are incidents for which local officials should be prepared. Since Vale returned from Louisiana, he has been organizing supplies to create a temporary hospital to handle as many as 150 patients. He wants to put together an education campaign for residents about disaster preparedness. Perhaps most importantly, Vale is working with other emergency officials to establish clear decision-making authority in the event of a crisis.
Katrina was an awful episode in our history. But such tragedy will be compounded if we don't take the opportunity to learn from it. Rita proved we can.
We can't control the state and federal response should disaster ever strike the Yampa Valley. What we do have control over is local planning and preparation. On that score, we would be wise to heed Vale's guidance.