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A general talks storm lessons since Katrina

By Ashley Fantz
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What caused Irene to weaken?
  • Canceling sporting, other events ahead of Irene unprecedented, says Russel Honore
  • That move was 'prudent,' he says, and reflects changing approach to storm preparedness
  • Honore: Officials and public seem to take hurricanes much more seriously since Katrina

(CNN) -- As Tropical Storm Irene pelted parts of New England, New York and New Jersey on Sunday morning, spoke with retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore. He spearheaded the military response in New Orleans during 2005's Hurricane Katrina. Honore retired from the Army in 2008 after 37 years, sits on the board of the Stevenson Disaster Management Institute, and is an adjunct professor at Emory and Vanderbilt universities. He wrote "Survival: How a Culture of Preparedness Can Save America and You from Disasters." Gen. Honore, you've spent the past five or so years since Hurricane Katrina advising government, rescue officials and the public on how to prepare for disasters. What did they do right and wrong with Irene?

Russel Honore: People take storms seriously because they saw the level of seriousness (during Katrina) that can go on. Before Katrina, it was a longstanding tradition in our country for political officials to wait until the last minute to warn, to take action, to evacuate. No more. With Irene, you had mass evacuations -- mandatory ones -- issued days ahead of time. That was the right thing to do. I've been in the storm business for years and I've never seen officials be prudent enough to cancel commercial and sporting events before a storm. Folks in the Northeast did that. The day before Katrina, we had a football game in Baton Rouge. That's how far the community has come.

I don't see anything as of now that went wrong. One of the criticisms of leaders during Katrina was that their communication was abysmal. Has that improved?

Six years after Katrina: A look back

Honore: Governors, mayors, local law enforcement and rescue -- no one is reluctant anymore to ask for help now. There's a greater collaboration across agencies that I've personally seen in Alabama, Tennessee, and some of the Southern states (that experienced recording flooding and tornadoes this year). Yet early Sunday morning, there was just light rain in many places in New York City and other towns, and the impression was that Irene was far less serious a situation than predicted. You and I are having this conversation about mid-morning Sunday, and CNN is reporting that residents are starting to come out of their homes to check things out. A television news crew even got footage of a man out jogging in Central Park.

Honore: This happens. There's no reason to come out and have a look. There's just no reason to come out. It could still be dangerous. I would tell people to watch their local news and do as they hear. Don't go out. Rikers Island prison, which was constructed on a landfill, was not evacuated, a decision that was made before the storm hit. Considering inmates in New Orleans were left and many died during Katrina, is New York's decision regarding Rikers wise?

Honore: Mayor Bloomberg said that it (Irene) wasn't a threat to that area where Rikers is located, so I have to defer to him and the others who made that call. I haven't personally taken a look at it, so this is why I have to go with what he said. The way the storm has panned out, I can't say that it was a terrible decision. One has to weigh the massive amount of money that it takes to evacuate prisoners and the likelihood that that area will be hit. There wasn't an assessment of the latter (in New Orleans during Katrina), and here (in New York) you apparently had that.