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FEMA chief touts high-tech hurricane response

New evacuation plans in place
Workers in New Orleans Wednesday clean the rebuilt levee breached by Hurricane Katrina.



Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration
New Orleans (Louisiana)

(CNN) -- Hard-learned lessons from Katrina have led to improved disaster plans for the city of New Orleans and surrounding parishes, FEMA chief David Paulison said as the new hurricane season got under way Thursday.

The new disaster response plans include improved communication and high-tech systems for tracking relief supplies.

FEMA has purchased 20,000 global-positioning units to go into tractor-trailers carrying relief supplies.

"When they leave our warehouses, we'll know where they are, and we can tell the state very clearly what location they're in and when they're going to arrive at their location," he said.

One of our biggest concerns was the evacuation plans in the state of Louisiana," Paulison said.

He said FEMA has worked with parishes, the emergency managers of the state and of New Orleans to create "solid evacuation plans."

"We've gone through those, we've rehearsed them, we're very comfortable that those are going to work," Paulison said.

He added that on Tuesday, he and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff "got on the bus, went to the evacuation site, went to the Convention Center, got registered and walked through that whole process to make sure it's in good shape."

Paulison acknowledged that logistics and communications were significant problems during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

The massive storm killed more than 1,500 people and caused an estimated $100 billion in damage in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, when it slammed into the Gulf Coast in August. It is expected to go into the record books as the most expensive natural disaster in American history. (Watch how homeowners can minimize property damage -- 3:36)

This year FEMA is working with the Louisiana National Guard to place communication equipment in each parish, Paulison said.

"We will have satellite communications, we have thousands of handheld radios that we can pass out to first responders if we need to, and also, we're going to have our satellite cell phones."

Most important, he noted, was establishing a unified command post "where everybody is in the same room, planning out our strategies and our 12-hour blocks," Paulison said. "That did not happen last year, and I think that was one of the biggest breakdowns in communication."

FEMA has also multiplied the number of supplies, he said. For instance, while 160 truckloads of emergency food were available last year, this year 770 truckloads of MREs (meals ready to eat) are ready to move in.

"During Hurricane Katrina, there was simply not enough supplies, and we had no ability to track them. We didn't know where our supplies were."

As for the levees, Paulison said, the Corps is "going to make sure the levees are as good as they were when we had Katrina last year," adding that work was still under way to rebuild floodgates. "Just because June first is here does not mean they're going to stop."

Some of the responsibility, however, falls on citizens in the path of the storm, he said. "Those people have to evacuate. They have to pay attention to the local emergency managers and evacuate when they're told to do so." (Watch how lawmakers plan to include pets in evacuation plans -- 2:57)

Nine hurricanes predicted

A noted hurricane researcher is standing by his April predictions.In an updated prediction issued Wednesday, William Gray, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University, said the United States had an 8 in 10 chance of getting a major hurricane somewhere this year. (Watch how much storm activity Gray thinks is on the way -- 4:39)

The East Coast, he predicted, stood a 69 percent chance of a major hurricane. A major hurricane is classified as a Category 3 hurricane or stronger on the Saffir-Simpson scale, with sustained winds of 110 mph or more.

Of the nine hurricanes predicted, five will become major hurricanes, Gray and his CSU Tropical Meteorology Project estimated.

Hurricane season officially begins on Thursday, as by June 1 Atlantic waters traditionally have warmed enough for the formation of tropical storms.

Gray's forecast ran roughly along the same lines as that of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA predicted 13 to 16 named storms for the North Atlantic, with eight to 10 of them becoming hurricanes. NOAA also predicted four to six major hurricanes.

Last year saw a record-breaking seven major hurricanes. Of those, four made landfall in the United States -- Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma. The region averages three major hurricanes yearly, with one making landfall in the United States every five years.

Those four names were retired by the World Meteorological Association, along with Stan, a storm that dumped torrential rain on Central America and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, killing as many as 2,000 people. Names are retired out of sensitivity to storm victims and for historical, scientific and legal purposes.

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