Calif. Avoids Katrina Comparison

Perhaps it was the images of elderly patients who'd been abandoned on the baggage carousels at the New Orleans airport. Or the desperate parents cradling dehydrated infants at the Superdome, or TV reporters shouting on the air at clueless government officials. When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger showed up at the Del Mar racetrack outside of San Diego at 10 p.m. Monday night and found local officials struggling to find hospital beds for nearly 300 patients who'd been evacuated from nearby nursing homes, he was determined to leave nothing to chance.

Picking up the phone himself, Schwarzenegger started canvassing nearby hospitals for vacant beds. "He was talking to generals, admirals, basically shaking the trees," says Navy Cmdr. Paul Russo, a medical logistics coordinator assigned to help with disaster relief. "He had everyone he talked to accepting these patients." Within hours, National Guard troops showed up from the U.S.-Mexico border to help; buses and ambulances pulled up. Russo was amazed when Schwarzenegger came back by helicopter twice more during the night to make sure the patients were on their way to new hospitals. "He was flying over L.A. and called to make sure that the dialysis patients had been moved first," Russo says of Schwarzenegger. "I don't know the guy from Adam, but we couldn't have asked for a better response."

It's a long way from over, and the toll is sure to be brutal, but if there is one image that has emerged aside from the horrific wall of fire across southern California, it is of government functioning briskly and effectively in the face of the nation's worst national disaster since Katrina. Half a million residents have been evacuated from more than a dozen uncontrolled wildfires, 1,500 houses have been destroyed and tens of thousands more are in danger. The stakes couldn't be higher for the Bush administration, which wasted no time in mobilizing the military and sending top officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and FEMA director David Paulison to California. And Bush is scheduled to visit the fire-stricken region on Thursday.

But it is Schwarzenegger in his black windbreaker—ubiquitous, reassuring and hands-on—who has already emerged as the action hero of the California firestorm. While Schwarzenegger has taken pains at every stop across the fire-ravaged region to thank the federal government, and Bush in particular, with whom he has never had a close relationship, unspoken comparisons to the administration's disastrous response in New Orleans are unavoidable. "The governor has been very clear that he will not let the people of California go through a Katrina," his spokesman Adam Mendelsohn tells NEWSWEEK. "He's personally on the ground making sure it's not happening."

To be sure, the tragedy that befell New Orleans is incomparable in many ways from what is happening in California, where many of the 800,000 evacuees were affluent and mobile enough to get themselves out of harm's way. While three people have died so far in the California blazes, more than 1,500 perished in New Orleans, many of them trapped in their own homes. In San Diego, sophisticated communications, such as the county's reverse-911 system, allow authorities to place hundreds of thousands of calls per hour to warn residents of oncoming danger. The victims of Katrina were in many cases cut off from information, or lacking cars and credit cards needed to take shelter in hotels. And while the scale of this fire disaster is unprecedented, California has huge and well-trained firefighting units, who wage perennial battles with a familiar threat. While the likelihood of a levee failure was well-known in New Orleans before Katrina, once the levees gave way, no human intervention could have slowed the floodwaters which engulfed the city within hours. Above all, there are the painful lessons learned from the catastrophe in New Orleans, which government officials at all levels, including Schwarzenegger, have taken to heart.

One of Schwarzenegger's biggest concerns was avoiding the kind of government paralysis that doomed the New Orleans response, leaving empty Navy ships off the Gulf Coast and thousands of empty school buses marooned in parking lots. Early Monday morning as the San Diego area fires began to spread out of control, Schwarzenegger was concerned enough about the huge blazes outside of Malibu to call President Bush and ask to have the San Diego region's massive military resources mobilized. At that point, it wasn't yet clear that they would be needed, but Schwarzenegger feared that red tape could slow a deployment. When he conducted a risk assessment of California in the aftermath of Katrina, Schwarzenegger had been bitterly disappointed with the red tape and reluctance he encountered in getting federal aid to repair California's decaying levee system. This time, his requests were granted immediately. "He said, 'Here is my chief of staff, we will get you whatever you need,'" Schwarzenegger said of his first conversation with Bush on Monday morning.

Starting at 8 a.m. Monday, Schwarzenegger, accompanied by his chief-of-staff Susan Kennedy, his state disaster chief and other aides, helicoptered from one fire-fighting base to the next, convening spontaneous meetings with local officials, relaying requests to the Bush administration, directing National Guard troops and coordinating with the Pentagon. At the Del Mar race track, Schwarzenegger stayed for more than two hours before he was satisfied that enough ambulances were available to move 288 patients. He slept briefly, from 1 am to 5 am on Tuesday, then continued his rounds, making sure that pledges of assistance were delivered. That follow-through, say his aides, was a critical lesson of Katrina, where there was no clear chain of command, leading to disastrous lapses such as the elderly evacuees dumped at the airport, and streams of people hiking along freeways in search of nonexistent transportation.

As evacuees began to fill the Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Schwarzenegger, determined to avoid echoes of the Superdome disaster, had an aide call the chief of the California Grocers' Association to make sure adequate supplies of water and provisions were en route. At times he sounded like a quartermaster—rattling off quantities of baby formula, diapers and even toilet paper needed for the growing, but surprisingly calm crowd (the volunteer masseuses ministering to evacuees may have helped on that front). At others, he sounded oddly boosterish, boasting of California as "the most beautiful state" and talking about how "terrific" the emergency response had been, but the message was clear. "I will be relentless," Schwarzenegger promised evacuees. "No matter what, all the way through to the end, we want to make sure that people are happy, that we are helping in every step of the way."

Success if far from assured. The nearly flawless performance of dozens of government agencies in recent days will be hard—if not impossible to sustain. Partisan sniping could flare at the first misstep as easily as the dry brush. And for all his encouraging talk, Schwarzenegger has also acknowledged his state is perhaps only at the beginning of "a tragedy." His optimism is sure to be tested in the days and months ahead as the colossal damages are totaled, tempers wear thin and tens of thousands of Californians begin the long slog with their insurance companies and with FEMA. But for now—at least—victims of the fire can take some comfort in knowing that they have apparently been spared a most painful reprise of Katrina.