San Diego Stadium Hosts Wildfire Evacuees

At least five deaths are being attributed to the Southern California wildfires. State officials are still ordering mandatory evacuations and calling for more firefighters and air support to battle the wide-spread blazes.

Thousands of evacuees are finding shelter at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium. The evacuation center is being compared to the shelters set up at the Louisiana Superdome and Houston's Astrodome after Hurricane Katrina hit.

And while there are numerous differences between the disasters, the situation at Qualcomm Stadium is eerily reminiscent of the Astrodome.

Officials Use Katrina's Lessons to Help in Fire Crisis

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger visit a shelter. i i

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff (left) and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA) visited Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Calif., on Tuesday where thousands of wildfire evacuees are being sheltered. Sandy Huffaker/Getty hide caption

itoggle caption Sandy Huffaker/Getty
Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger visit a shelter.

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff (left) and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA) visited Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Calif., on Tuesday where thousands of wildfire evacuees are being sheltered.

Sandy Huffaker/Getty

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Wednesday that firefighters may soon be able to mount an aerial assault on the massive wildfires that have burned more than 410,000 acres in Southern California.

"That will give us an opportunity to get the upper hand," Chertoff told NPR's Madeleine Brand.

Chertoff said forecasters are predicting the winds will begin to diminish and shift to the west on Thursday, bringing in more moisture from the Pacific Ocean. The change in the weather will move the fire away from residential areas and allow firefighters to bring in fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters to help subdue the flames, he said.

Advance Planning Helped Effort

Chertoff, who on Tuesday visited the evacuation center at Qualcomm Stadium, said federal, state and local relief agencies have been more responsive during the fire disaster than they were in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

He attributed that to advance planning and preparation.

"Of course, a lot of what we've done over the last two and a half years is build on lessons we learned from what happened in New Orleans in 2005," he said. That was when a slow government response to Hurricane Katrina left thousands of people stranded in flooded homes and overcrowded shelters for days.

Chertoff said federal disaster officials have worked with California officials over the last two years on different kinds of disasters. "We were poised to move into action very quickly," he said.

In California, the federal government was ready with more than 2,000 federal firefighters, 18 fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, medical assets, 75,000 cots, 50,000 packaged meals and water, he said. Officials also set up disaster recovery centers on Wednesday to help process victims who need assistance.

"From the firefighting to the rescue to the shelter and ultimately to the recovery, we are fully engaged in Orange County, San Diego and Los Angeles," he said.

Katrina Damage More Extensive

Chertoff said the scale of the damage in Southern California is expected to be less than it was in New Orleans, which will make it easier for Californians to get back to normal life.

"Of course, the scale of the damage here, I hope, will be substantially less than New Orleans," he said. "Right now, the estimates we have are about 2,100 structures substantially damaged or destroyed. That could obviously increase, but it's nothing like the literally tens of thousands of people who were rendered homeless for a long period of time because the flood had decimated an entire city."

Chertoff said communities should look at ways to mitigate future fires. He said disaster officials encourage communities to minimize fires through regulations on building construction, zoning and landscaping

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