How Schwarzenegger has learnt lessons of Katrina

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Arnold Schwarzenegger has no problem playing the action man. Ever since wildfires started raging out of control across southern California last weekend, the movie star turned governor has barely stopped moving – hopping by helicopter from one fire-afflicted area to another to reassure the local population that help was at hand.

On Monday, as the fires spread from Malibu to San Diego, he declared a seven-county state of emergency. He persuaded the White House to declare the region a federal disaster zone – thus freeing up money, resources and people to combat the spreading flames.

His argument was, essentially: let's not turn this into another Hurricane Katrina.

By Monday night he had carte blanche from President George Bush to ask for anything he wanted. By Tuesday he had a visit from Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security Secretary who oversees national disaster management. By today, he will have Mr Bush himself on site, along with a firefighter force numbering about 10,000.

The fires may be a catastrophe in every other respect, but as an exercise in political manoeuvring they have been well-nigh flawless. When Katrina hit New Orleans two years ago, the federal government was essentially Awol for days. The hurricane ended career after career – notably that of Lousiana's governor, Kathleen Blanco.

Mr Schwarzenegger, by contrast, has looked every inch the leader. He has made sure local, state and federal agencies worked in lock-step. Now that the winds have died down a little, he has helicopters and planes ready to dump fire retardant on canyons and housing developments, and a small army of firefighters to battle the blazes.

"Unlike previous emergencies or natural disasters, this time everyone responded very quickly, and there's a great co-ordination between everyone," he said.

The death toll has been remarkably low – just six as of yesterday night – and the number of houses destroyed barely half the number torched four years ago.

There have been some complaints. One fire chief in Orange County complained that helicopters were too slow to save a community called Modjeska Canyon. But the slowness had many causes, not least of which is the tendency of both Orange County and San Diego County to vote against taxes that might provide the money for firefighting.

Mr Schwarzenegger had no trouble brushing off the criticism, dismissing it as a "bunch of nonsense".