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As different as fire and water

SAN DIEGO – There is a lot of buzz about the comparison between the natural disasters in the New Orleans area after Katrina and currently in Southern California – and which handled the emergency best and why.

Most of it doesn't mean much at this stage. The disaster is still unfolding here and the most controversial and testing part is still to come – the recovery.

But California has plenty to be proud of and grateful for. Much of the gratitude is owed to common folks who saw a need and stepped in – not so much government leaders.

The same was true in New Orleans. For example, the Cajun Navy just sort of instinctively materialized in the hours after the storm struck. Air boats and john boats hauled by pickups manned by people who knew they were needed and came. They saved thousands of lives and most got no credit.

Their amazing achievement was lost in the hell that New Orleans became when state and federal officials couldn't seem to do what a person with a 12-foot boat and an outboard could. Simply put – help.

Firefighters in California pulled off similar miracles soon to be forgotten. So did average volunteers who worked in the pre-dawn darkness caring for strangers at Qualcomm Stadium before heading into their day job.

California was more organized. It is, after all, much more practiced with disasters. Earthquakes and previous fires have honed the edge of preparedness here. It is also a much wealthier state and rich with voters who can make or break a candidacy. And it was quickly determined that it would be no Katrina when it came to a federal response.

No comparison

You cannot compare these disasters. They are as different as water and fire. The loss of 1,300 homes in Southern California so far is awful, but pales to homes and business lost to Katrina. In St. Bernard Parish alone they lost almost five times as many. We aren't even touching New Orleans or the often overlooked Mississippi coast.

Much of Louisiana's infrastructure was compromised or destroyed. In California much of it was left intact. They could talk on phones to coordinate relief in California. They could barely find a radio to call for help after Katrina.

Qualcomm Stadium where thousands sheltered was never threatened. The Superdome was heavily damaged. It had twice to three times as many people and no electricity, no ventilation, not much food, limited security, no water, no sanitation and absolutely no information.

Then there was the loss of life.

Don't compare these disasters; that would be grossly unfair to the people of California and Louisiana.

The biggest concern is that many will – and then say, "See we have learned from Katrina and fixed what failed." If leaders believe that, then that really will be a disaster.

Check map for fire locations.

Martin Savidge has reported extensively for NBC News from New Orleans - both during Katrina and on the city's ongoing recovery. Click here to watch some of NBC News reports from New Orleans.