On a trip to Biloxi Wednesday, the Secretary of Homeland Security said his agency was better equipped to handle Mississippi's next natural disaster. But Michael Chertoff also said FEMA could only do its job if you do yours.
Chertoff was on the coast to participate in the 2007 Mississippi Alabama Hurricane Conference. The homeland security secretary said his agency had done an enormous amount of work and training to make sure the mistakes of Katrina were not repeated.
Mr. Chertoff believes FEMA's ultimate success is dependent on you. In his words, you can't sit back, do nothing and expect the government to save you.
"You have to step up to the plate yourself. And if you step up, we'll step up," he said.
Secretary Chertoff said Homeland Security's new preparations include having better communications equipment available, purchasing millions of ready to eat food items, and storing a lot more bottled water in strategic locations around the country.
"No one is going make a disaster into a pleasant event. The reason they call it a disaster is because it's a bad experience," Chertoff told the media. "What we can do is mitigate the experience."
Chertoff and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour were part of a panel that opened the 2007 Mississippi Alabama Hurricane Conference. Afterward, Barbour said he was hopeful FEMA had learned from its Katrina mistakes.
"FEMA seems to be better prepared, but also the state has taken on the obligation of preparing ourselves for some things," the governor said.
Like Chertoff, Governor Barbour also said Mississippians must take responsibility for themselves during a disaster.
"One of the things that's crucial to that is people have to practice responsibility, self preparation," he thought. "No government can do everything for everybody. And particularly when you're in the middle of an enormous disaster. But we are preparing to carry more of the burden by the state then we were prepared to do for Katrina so that way we don't have to rely on anybody."
According to Barbour, Mississippi's solution is to be self sufficient for the first 72 hours after a storm makes landfall, so if homes get torn apart again, families can still have access to basic necessities. At that point, Barbour expects FEMA to lend a helping hand.
And Chertoff is confident his agency is ready. "We are here to do a job to support state and local government," he said.
Secretary Chertoff promised that because of the lessons learned from 2005, the federal government would be more prepared to respond.
"We were very lucky last year, we barely got touched," said Chertoff. "Luck is not a basis on which you can base your life. We have to prepare for the worst."
Because thousands of families still live in FEMA trailers, much of the focus at the hurricane conference was convincing people to evacuate the area the next time a storm heads toward the state. As Alabama Governor Bob Riley said, stage one of any disaster is survival. And you don't get a second chance at that.