Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Katrina Year | The Next Emergency - Despite Steps, Disaster Planning Still Shows Gaps

The New York Times
The Katrina Year | The Next Emergency
Despite Steps, Disaster Planning Still Shows Gaps

WASHINGTON, Aug. 25 — As Tropical Storm Beryl whipped up the seas along the mid-Atlantic coast this summer, officials monitoring the storm inside the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters could watch both sides of the action.

On one computer monitor was the National Weather Service image of the storm, spinning slowly toward New England. Nearby was FEMA’s high-tech counterpunch: a digital map of the United States with a swarm of Pac-Man-like dots representing FEMA trucks moving disaster relief supplies toward the expected impact zone.

The tracking system is a concrete sign of progress for an agency that, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, became an international symbol of dysfunction and incompetence. But the system is set up for only a sliver of the country and includes just a fraction of the aid sent to the field. It is emblematic of how inconsistent progress has been in preparing the nation for disasters, one year after the hurricane and five years after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

In the last year, FEMA, the federal government’s primary disaster response agency and overseer of state and local efforts, has adopted policies to help prevent fraud and wasteful spending, strengthened its ties with other federal agencies for help with evacuations and emergency medical aid and installed high-tech equipment, like the supply-tracking system. After a prolonged search, it hired a new director, R. David Paulison, a former chief of the Miami-Dade Fire Department, and significantly built up its executive ranks with more seasoned emergency managers.

Despite calls by many FEMA critics, though, little has fundamentally changed about the agency itself, which still has less autonomy and power than it did in the Clinton years and a budget for its core mission that has not significantly increased.

The inconsistencies are apparent elsewhere. Along the Gulf Coast and in other locations struck by disaster, like New York City, important advances have been made to prepare for the next catastrophe. In New Orleans, extraordinary steps have been taken to care for the disabled, the elderly and tens of thousands of others without cars if another major hurricane arrives. In New York, city officials say, up to three million people could be evacuated from coastal areas and 600,000 accommodated in shelters stocked with food and supplies.

But in large chunks of the country, far more limited progress has been made to prepare for catastrophe, a recent federal assessment concluded. The Department of Homeland Security, FEMA’s parent agency, rated only 27 percent of the states and 10 percent of the cities evaluated as adequately prepared “to cope with a catastrophic event.” Dallas, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City and Philadelphia were among the low scorers.

In Philadelphia, for example, emergency radio systems are not reliable throughout city, plans to care for the elderly and the disabled are not complete, shelter space is insufficient and contracts for emergency supplies mostly do not exist — all lapses that contributed to the debacle in New Orleans last year.

The uneven preparation has left many emergency-response experts, including senior Bush administration officials, uneasy.

“There is not a governor nor major-city mayor in America who does not know that all eyes will be watching them when the next major disaster occurs,” said George W. Foresman, under secretary for preparedness at the Department of Homeland Security. “But generally speaking, if you ask the question ‘Are they ready?’ it is not where it needs to be. And that is the understatement of the day.”

Mr. Paulison, the FEMA director, acknowledged in a briefing this month that while progress had been made, his agency had not finished the task of retooling itself.

“We cannot let the deaths and the suffering of those Katrina victims go in vain,” he said. “We have to take those lessons learned and make sure that this organization, primarily FEMA, but the entire federal government, is capable of responding in a much more nimble and much more effective way.”

Ready to Roll

At Camp Beauregard, a Louisiana National Guard training ground far from the vulnerable Gulf Coast, FEMA has set up a sprawling disaster depot. Load after load of bottled water, ready-to-eat meals, cots, tarps, blankets and sheets of plastic have been assembled this year, each movement of goods tracked by FEMA’s new satellite system.

But instead of holding the supplies at the centrally located camp as FEMA mostly did last year, the agency distributed them across the state, to sites including New Orleans and surrounding parishes hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. With these and other stockpiles — at least twice the inventory dispersed before the hurricane last August — FEMA officials say they have enough supplies to care for one million people for a week.

“We have moved the trailers by the hundreds,” said Garrison Martin, the FEMA manager of the Camp Beauregard complex, watching as forklifts brought in more goods. “We can meet the need if a disaster was to happen again.”

Mr. Martin and other federal, state and local officials in Louisiana have a palpable sense of urgency in preparing for another hurricane or other disaster. They have pieced together a regional response plan that has few precedents in American history.

Federal officials say that if a major hurricane threatens the Louisiana coast this year, they will be ready before the storm to help move up to 80,000 people by bus and 61,000 by plane or train — almost everyone in the region without cars, including tourists. Federal and state officials have also found shelters safely away from the coast for as many as 250,000 people. The Defense Department, at FEMA’s request, has contracted with suppliers to deliver diesel fuel and gasoline in hurricane-prone states for generators and vehicles along escape routes.

The Pentagon is also prepared to step in and help with rescues, medical evacuations, delivery of heavy equipment and road clearing, as well as to provide 15,000 to 20,000 active duty troops to maintain order and offer other assistance. The Department of Transportation is even paying for 200 buses simply to sit in the Gulf region this summer, just in case they are needed for evacuations.

The most detailed planning involves caring for the sick, the elderly and the disabled, for whom the government and institutional failures last year proved most deadly.

After the hurricane, residents of Maison Hospitalière, a nursing home off Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, had to wait four days in the stifling heat until they were evacuated. Without air-conditioning, the temperatures climbed so high that two residents died while waiting for rescuers.

“Things will be different this year,” said Andrew B. Sandler, the nursing home administrator.

Now Mr. Sandler has a contract with a bus company that vows it will honor an agreement to move his residents if necessary, as well as a contract with a company that manages three nursing homes inland to accept his residents. And if his plans fall through, state and federal officials say they will step in to take care of them.

Federal officials know that some havoc would be inevitable in an evacuation of New Orleans. But they are using every moment of this hurricane season to prepare to deal with another storm.

“Every day we have where we don’t have a hurricane, we will be able to take it a little bit further,” said Gil H. Jamieson, who is coordinating FEMA’s efforts along the Gulf Coast.

Untested in the Northeast

Dr. Harvey Rubin’s expertise is in infectious diseases, not disaster management. But from the top floor of a hospital at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Rubin had no trouble pointing out where catastrophes could unfold in Philadelphia.

To the south, sandwiched among a residential neighborhood, the airport and three sports complexes, is a giant Sunoco oil refinery. It processes a highly flammable product and stores hundreds of thousands of pounds of hydrogen fluoride, an extremely toxic chemical used to make high-octane fuels. If the chemical was released into the air by an accident or a terrorist act, a poisonous, ground-hugging cloud could threaten hundreds of thousands of residents for miles away.

To the east, behind office towers, are the city’s historic icons, the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall; beyond them is the container-ship port. All are considered possible terrorist targets.

Philadelphia is not at high risk for a natural disaster, but like many other major metropolitan areas, it is vulnerable to industrial accidents and terrorist strikes. Yet when Mayor John F. Street ordered a review of how prepared the city was for a major catastrophe, the results were far from reassuring.

“We have done well, luckily, with the typical disaster,” said Dr. Rubin, director of the University of Pennsylvania Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis and Response and co-chairman of the study. “But the big catastrophe — we have not been tested. It would not be smooth.”

Evacuation plans for the city, even if only part of it had to be cleared, are so unspecific that even some agencies expected to play a critical role do not know what to do, the report said.

The city, which has 1.5 million residents, has few plans to evacuate the elderly or people without cars. Stockpiles of food and supplies would be sufficient for only about 15,000 residents, with few contracts arranged to quickly bring in large amounts of additional supplies.

The police and fire emergency radio communication systems are unreliable on the underground sections of the city subway. The ambulance dispatching system does not allow city rescue crews to communicate directly with hospitals.

So little thought, in fact, had gone into disaster planning that city officials had not even set up antiterrorist traffic barriers around the police headquarters, which also houses the 911 dispatch center. (Barriers have recently been installed.)

Left to Fend for Itself

The findings, issued in June, reflected conclusions reached the same month by the Department of Homeland Security and last month by the United States Conference of Mayors.

“Significant weaknesses in evacuation planning are an area of profound concern,” the department’s report said. The mayors’ conference report noted that communications systems in 80 percent of the cities were not sophisticated enough to allow all public safety and rescue workers to talk to one another, a goal the study’s authors said would take on average four years to achieve.

Some states, including Florida, North Carolina and Texas, received decent grades in the Homeland Security Department survey, largely because of the frequent tests they face from hurricanes. Certain high-risk targets like Washington and New York also did relatively well, thanks to steps taken since 2001.

Some measures FEMA has taken in the last year — like establishing federal reconnaissance teams that can fly in and report back on conditions even if local communications networks are knocked out — could compensate for some of the preparedness lapses. FEMA has also doubled, to 200,000 a day, its capacity to field telephone calls from victims who want to register for financial aid.

Yet many aspects of the enhanced federal response effort are limited to particularly vulnerable areas, like southeastern Louisiana. Much of the rest of the country would have to fend largely for itself after a disaster until federal help could be mobilized, perhaps as much as 48 to 72 hours later. With most areas inadequately prepared, that could be precarious, federal officials and emergency managers acknowledge.

“Time and again, these factors exact a severe penalty in the midst of a crisis: Precious time is consumed in the race to correct the misperceptions of federal, state and local responders about roles, responsibilities and actions,” the federal survey of states and cities warned. “The result is uneven performance and repeated and costly operational miscues.”

Philadelphia officials have been commended for producing such a blunt report that identifies gaps in their preparedness. But for area residents like Theresa Jones, who lives near the oil refinery, and Charlie Tomlinson, who rides the subway, the city’s vulnerabilities are worrisome.

“If something happens here, we are just cooked,” Ms. Jones said. “We will be fried chicken.”

Pedro A. Ramos, Philadelphia’s top administrative official, said residents should rest assured that Philadelphia was moving energetically to fill the gaps in its disaster plan.

“You never know what you don’t know until you go looking for it,” Mr. Ramos said.

But as a subway car pulled into an underground station near City Hall, Mr. Tomlinson said he could not help but wonder why it had taken the city so long to get serious about preparedness.

“You would have thought that now that we are five years past Sept. 11 that someone would have addressed this,” Mr. Tomlinson said. “It is a little scary.”