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Editorial: Can’t fault preparation, warnings about Irene

As East Coast residents total their losses from Hurricane Irene, Northwesterners have the luxury of assessing the storm’s passage up the East Coast from a great distance, and the comfort of the nation’s most benign environment: Spokane and other cities are consistently rated among the least tempest-tossed and earthly shaken.

Irene inflicted a minimum of 40 fatalities and damage estimated upward from $10 billion. With 65 million potentially exposed to the storm’s winds and rain, the impacts were remarkably light, unless you are a Vermonter who watched a beloved covered bridge sluiced down a stream normally little more than a reflecting pool.

The peaceful little Green Mountain state took a blow that many but not all had forecast for Philadelphia, New York and other metropolitan areas. AccuWeather. com issued a dead-on forecast Thursday for serious flooding in the coastal mid-Atlantic and portions of New England: “It is not a question, not a risk; it is a certainty.”

Despite the losses, the second-guessers are accusing some politicians and forecasters of overstating Irene’s menace, unnecessarily inconveniencing millions, and putting many a newsperson knee-deep in blather surge. Is it really news that a raindrop traveling 75 mph stings?

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was most criticized for ordering evacuations, shutting down mass transit, and issuing strident warnings about Irene’s potency. But Bloomberg learned a lesson from the pounding he took in December for the city’s floundering response to a 2-foot dump of snow that paralyzed transportation. So did New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was AWOL during the same storm.

The political class in general has not forgotten what happened to New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. The ensuing chaos was a black eye not just for that city and the state of Louisiana, but for the United States as well.

No one wants to be in the position of trying to explain away the inexcusable. The wise brushed up their emergency plans and, over-response or not, implemented them this weekend.

Much of the carping about how governments danced with Irene came from quarters fearful of over-reaching bureaucrats, a hollow charge in this event. Although President Barack Obama was among those advising maximum caution, it was local and state officials like Bloomberg and Christie – those closer to the people – who were in command.

Washington took a step toward a more coordinated emergency response last week with the signing of a memorandum of agreement that could allow the designation of a single commander for National Guard and military forces in the event of a catastrophe. Gov. Chris Gregoire is among 10 governors – three from states hit by Irene – working with the president to streamline disaster response.

But the best response is anticipation, preparation – that means household stockpiling, too – and a willingness to step up to the microphones before all heck breaks loose, not after.

An ounce of alarmism is better than a pound of fault-finding.

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