Fire Response Unveils Lessons Learned for Federal Officials

Although the recent fires charred close to 350,000 acres and
destroyed well over a thousand homes, San Diegans still have much to be
thankful for.

When the disaster started over a week ago, many worried that
the mass evacuations might induce a Hurricane Katrina-like chaos, but things
remained exceptionally calm as the number of evacuees soared over 500,000.

Qualcomm Stadium was almost picturesque — a far cry from the
disorderly nature of the Louisiana Superdome at the height of Katrina. Instead
of violence, drug deals and suicide attempts there were activities for the kids
along with musical performances, massages and buffets for the adults.

Volunteers came in droves to aid evacuees as the National
Guard stood watch to prevent any possible outbreak of violence. Their weapons,
however, were never needed thanks to the efforts of disaster-response officials
who were quick to meet the needs of evacuated citizens.

But Qualcomm was not the only success. In fact, evacuation
centers across the county have done an equally impressive job housing hoards of homeowners and pets that flocked to
their facilities in search of shelter from the fire.

What many expected to be a political hot potato for state
and national officials turned out to be a showing of their commitment to
improving disaster-response procedue.

The president, especially, had learned Katrina’s lesson
well. Whereas congressional leaders complained of slow federal response for the
2005 hurricane, the president promptly declared a state of emergency in Southern
California on Oct. 23. The action allowed Federal Emergency Management Agency
officials to begin dispersing aid to those most affected by the fires — which
caused more than $1 billion in damage to San Diego County.

With FEMA able to distribute grants, local officials
throughout the county, along with members of the state’s Office of Emergency
Services, were quick to establish relief centers that fire victims could visit
for a bevy of services.

Given the necessity of these centers in the rebuilding of San
Diego, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s efforts to speed their development should
be commended.

Even localized efforts to cope with the fire’s aftermath
have been executed without a hitch. UCSD, for example, acted quickly to notify
students of school closures.

In order to allow affected students and faculty the proper
recovery time, they have delayed class deadlines, billing dates and Winter
Quarter enrollment; reduced instruction days, established counseling services
and donation programs; offered $3,000 loans to faculty and staff who are
victims of the fire and encouraged professors to modify or reduce syllabi to
manage the lost days.

However, the most impressive response by far has come from
San Diegans themselves — friends and families that opened their homes to
evacuees, that stood in line for hours to donate food, blankets and cots at the
shelters and that helped elderly neighbors pack their cars and leave their
homes. We also cannot forget the courageous fire fighters — many of which were
evacuated from their own homes — who toiled around the clock to save homes and
extinguish the fire.Even during disaster, these men and women displayed
kindness and concern.

And so, despite the losses that many face in the coming
days, San Diegans can feel comfort in knowing the strength of their community
and the determination of its people.

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