TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Government Prepares For Next Big Disaster

Government Prepares For Next Big Disaster

Larry Margasak (
Sat, 31 Dec 2005 19:36:17 -0600

By LARRY MARGASAK, Associated Press Writer

Before the next big hurricane's winds howl ashore, or a tsumani washes
ashore, Homeland Security officials want an emergency communications
network operating, emergency medical facilities treating patients, and
teams dispatched to search for victims at the likely ground zero.

In the wake of congressional hearings that exposed the breathtaking
failures of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, the Bush
administration is retooling its disaster plan to react more quickly to
the next catastrophe.

Michael Brown, now the ex-chief of the Federal Emergency Management
Agency, became the public face of Katrina's failure. But the
administration is reviewing how other leaders also failed last August
to execute a playbook approved just eight months earlier to handle
such a disaster.

For example, Brown's boss -- Homeland Security Secretary Michael
Chertoff - did not invoke special powers in the National Response Plan
that would have rushed federal aid to New Orleans when state and local
officials said they were swamped.

The department rejected the authority, concluding that it should be
invoked only for sudden catastrophic events that offer no time for
preparation and not for slow-approaching hurricanes.

That will not happen next time, according to officials who described
to The Associated Press some of the changes in the administration's
evolving disaster response plan.

"There has to be a way to apply federal resources when state and local
resources are overwhelmed," said Joel Bagnal, a special assistant to
the president for homeland security who is involved in the administra-
tion's lessons-learned review.

Chief among the changes to the original 426-page plan are several ideas for
rushing federal resources to a stricken area. They include:

_Dropping small military or civilian vehicles, packed with communications
gear, into a disaster zone by helicopter or driving them from nearby staging

_Setting up portable hospitals with federal emergency medical teams to
augment local facilities.

_Helping local and state police catch looters and snipers by providing
federal law enforcement officers if requested.

White House spokesman Trent Duffy said Friday that the revamped
National Response Plan is expected to be finalized in the coming weeks
after meetings with hundreds of federal, state and government
officials and individuals outside the government.

The union representative for FEMA headquarters workers worries about how
well the agency will respond next time. FEMA reacted quickly to big
disasters when it operated independently, he said, but fell short in its
first big test as a member of the massive Homeland Security Department.

"You broke your toy and now it doesn't work," said Leo Bosner, himself a
veteran FEMA disaster specialist.

Those on the front lines hope to have a unified philosophy that values
flexibility and quick thinking to adapt solutions to a rapidly unfolding
human disaster.

"When you have a disaster, nothing goes by any kind of plan," said Dr.
Arthur Wallace, leader of the Oklahoma 1 FEMA medical team that was
dispatched from its staging area too late to beat Katrina to New

The administration officials and responders interviewed by the AP
offered a few of their own horror stories that they do not want
repeated. They also help illustrate changes in the evolving plan.


Dr. Wallace's 34-member medical team from Oklahoma left its Houston
staging area Aug. 28 after receiving a request from Louisiana
officials to head for the Superdome.

Katrina made landfall in Louisiana just after 6 a.m. on Aug. 29, but
the team did not arrive until that night. It did not receive its first
patients until dawn on Aug. 30.

That was 36 hours after FEMA began reporting grave medical problems in
the stadium, such as 400 people with special needs, 45 to 50 patients
in need of hospitalization, and a dwindling supply of oxygen.

Wallace's team made it only as far as Baton Rouge the night before the
storm came ashore because wind gusts had already made it impossible to
reach the Superdome. The sick evacuees had to wait.

"The winds were buffeting the trucks pretty bad" when the team halted
in the state capital, Wallace recalled.

In the future, the administration wants medical teams in position
before the storm strikes. If for example, California has a major earth-
quake and a lot of water, the administration wants people there on the
spot. Likewise any coastal area, where a hurricane could strike on
short notice.


U.S. military communications with Louisiana and Mississippi officials
were so poor that commanders were forced to use couriers to transmit
messages, said Paul McHale, the assistant defense secretary for
homeland defense.

FEMA's "Red October" mobile command center rode out the storm at
Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, La., six hours from New
Orleans. The oversize trailer can establish communications in a
stricken area and serve as the nerve center for directing emergency
relief. But it did not arrive in the city until several days after
Katrina had struck.

Bagnal said the administration wants to replace the "clunky" FEMA
vehicles with smaller ones that could be kept nearby and either driven
or flown to where they are needed. Bagnal noted that "ideally, there
should be vehicles to travel easily across a desert area or through
mud or even several feet of water."

The lack of equipment was not the only problem. White House
spokeswoman Dana Perino said it took 10 to 12 days before a fully
staffed, multi-agency field office for coordinating the response was
operating at Katrina's ground zero. Even then, she said, the staff
was thrown together with responders who hadn't worked with each other.

"Going forward, we definitely need a more capable, rapidly deployed
and experienced staff that works together on a routine basis -- in
noncrisis situations as well as catastrophic incidents," Perino said.


For several days, thousands of people at the New Orleans convention
center had no food, water or medical help. National Guard forces were
preoccupied with rooftop rescues and lacked the manpower to feed or
assist hungry refugees.

"Every single resource we had from Tuesday (Aug. 30) through Thursday
(Sept. 1) was committed to picking people off of rooftops and saving
people," recalled Louisiana National Guard Lt. Col. Jacques
Thibodeaux, a deputy U.S. marshal in civilian life.

It wasn't until Friday, Sept. 2, that Thibodeaux was told to lead a
rescue mission to the convention center. He cobbled together a force
of 1,000 from diverse units representing five states.

"We took 30 minutes to secure the area. In three hours we began
feeding people. In 30 hours, we had evacuated 19,000," Thibodeaux

The first active duty soldiers did not reach New Orleans until he
evening of Sept. 3.

The U.S. Northern Command, in Colorado Springs, Colo., had been
tracking Katrina before the storm made landfall and could have tapped
active duty assets. But the lone request the command received from
federal officials during Katrina's first day was for six helicopters,
spokesman Michael Kucharek said.

The White House is pressing Congress to establish the exact
circumstances and legal authority that would determine when the active
military should take over a disaster.


The 18-member, Dallas-based Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
special response team had the very skills needed to cope with looters
and snipers, but its members did not arrive in New Orleans until
Sept. 2.

"By the time we got here, it wasn't as bad as the first nights after
the storm," team leader Charles Smith said.

The team was trained in serving arrest warrants and executing search
warrants, hostage situations, rescues, and riot and crowd control. And
Smith brought an additional asset -- he was raised and once stationed
in New Orleans.

The team showed its capabilities two nights after arriving when
gunshots were reported in a neighborhood. Smith dispatched agents with
night-vision goggles and, as a helicopter appeared overhead, the team
observed a shooter in a four-unit housing project. Smith personally
talked two men out of the building and arrested one without firing a

In the future, the administration wants such teams ready to move as
soon as local law enforcement needs assistance.


Before Katrina struck, FEMA had dispatched a sizable public affairs
contingent to Louisiana. Their mission, according to the National
Response Plan, was "to coordinate a message," said Jeff Karonis, a
Homeland Security public affairs specialist.

"Several were experienced communicators in hurricanes of the
past. They know what the issues are," he said.

But the messages to the public often were confusing, leaving vital
questions unanswered. When would buses rescue people from the
Superdome? When would rescuers arrive at the convention center? Was
crime rampant?

Russ Knocke, the chief spokesman for the Homeland Security Department,
said the specialists were hampered by "a significant amount of
inaccurate reporting" that "added confusion and added fuel to the

Louisiana officials said the federal experts didn't coordinate with
them. "I don't think there was ever a meeting about message. It wasn't
a partnership," said Denise Bottcher, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco's

In the future, Knocke said, Homeland Security is "deeply committed to
working and communicating with state and local officials. Now that we
have internet and 'thousands' of radio and television stations, there
is no reason everyone involved cannot get the same message."

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.

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