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Prepare now

The nation still has work to do in preparing to handle major disasters. That's the message retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad W. Allen delivered in a recent interview with The Day. It comes from a man well familiar with handling big calamities.

Admiral Allen received national attention five years ago when he led Coast Guard rescue operations after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to coastal Mississippi and Louisiana. While other federal agencies seemed paralyzed, Coast Guard helicopters plucked stranded citizens from rooftops.

President Obama called the admiral back into service to direct the response efforts after the April 20 explosion of the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico and the subsequent massive oil spill from the damaged wellhead.

Despite lessons learned from the Katrina emergency response debacle, federal disaster planning still fails to provide the means to assure federal, state and local government agencies work together.

"We have to get better at it," said the retired admiral.

Indeed, during the Gulf spill local and state officials were constantly challenging and second-guessing the decisions of federal agencies, which in turn defended their actions and decried lack of local cooperation.

In a recent Parade magazine article, David Gergen, an adviser to four past presidents and a public service professor, astutely pointed to the need to create a command structure for disaster response. The best example to follow, argues Mr. Gergen, is the military.

In a major disaster, federal leadership must take control, but only after advanced preparation assures that local and state emergency responders have the training and resources they need to quickly carry out a coordinated relief effort.

For southern New England this is not a theoretical discussion. Someday a hurricane on the scale of the 1938 storm, or some other large disaster, will strike. Citizens must demand that their governments, at all levels, will be ready.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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