Amid Widespread Criticism, Government Prepares for Next Hurricane Season

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs said in an April report that officials at all levels of government were culpable and that they “did not appear to truly grasp the magnitude of the storm’s potential for destruction.”

“Katrina showed that the nation is still unprepared to respond to a catastrophe,” the report concluded.

Other investigations by the House, White House and FEMA itself all concluded that much needs to be done before the next season of hurricanes originating in the Atlantic Ocean begins June 1.

FEMA faces political storm

FEMA, under the Department of Homeland Security, is charged with coordinating preparation and response to natural and man-made disasters.

The Senate panel’s primary solution was the dissolution of FEMA and in its place, the installation of a National Preparedness and Response Authority, which, like FEMA, would fall under DHS but unlike the embattled agency would have a direct link to the president and could use that link in times of crisis.

White House homeland security adviser Frances Townsend responded to the report by telling reporters, “As we’re heading into this hurricane season, now is not the time to really look at moving organizational boxes.”

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, who in 2005 — before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast at the end of August — recommended moving preparedness functions out of FEMA and into DHS, is now looking to integrate FEMA and DHS to solve problems with coordination that preceded Katrina failures.

Chertoff, speaking at the National Hurricane Conference in April, said, “We have very specific goals and a very clear timeline as we approach June 1.”

In addition to seeking additional funding — DHS’ 2007 budget gives FEMA 10 percent more money than allotted for 2006 — the agency has pledged to:

  • build communications so officials can remain in contact even in cases of extreme weather or power failure;
  • improve “customer service” by doubling registration capacity after a disaster and employing a permanent disaster workforce;
  • update logistics to track the shipment of supplies and equipment; and
  • accelerate debris removal by streamlining the contracting process.

FEMA also is looking to address charges of an absence of leadership by increasing hiring and solidifying its top staff. By June 1, FEMA hopes to have 95 percent of its staff positions filled. According to DHS spokesman Russ Knocke, FEMA was about 10 percent away from its goal as of May 3.

President Bush is expected to nominate R. David Paulison, FEMA’s acting director since Michael Brown resigned two weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit, for official leadership. And in late April, DHS designated federal officials to assist state and local governments in emergency management.

With less than a month remaining to prepare, Knocke said federal officials are helping state and local governments prepare for the hurricane season.

Hurricane drills

Federal officials are working with state and local governments in Atlantic and Gulf coast localities in May on hurricane preparedness exercises, which FEMA developed to assess readiness and identify weaknesses.

The drills include tests of: changes to DHS’ National Response Plan, the federal approach for handling large-scale disasters; DHS’ Common Operational Picture, which integrates information technology; and FEMA’s Concept of Operations and Evacuation Plan.

In 2004, only two hurricane preparedness drills were listed among more than 200 homeland security exercises. An April House report found that lessons learned from 2004’s “Hurricane Pam” drill were not completely implemented by the time Katrina hit in 2005. Homeland Security’s focus on terrorism had left FEMA unprepared to deal with a natural disaster of Katrina’s magnitude.

On the state level, in Texas, for example, preparations took the form of a tabletop exercise from May 2-5 involving an imaginary Category 5 hurricane named Eunice. The state coordinated the exercise — the largest in Texas’ history — with the American Red Cross, focusing on reducing weaknesses in evacuation and sheltering, testing coordination and increasing public awareness. In an initial assessment, the Houston Chronicle reported a problem with bus availability.

New Orleans preparations

In New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin declared May the city’s first Hurricane Awareness Month. His city’s hurricane strategy, unveiled May 2, involved improving communications and implementing an evacuation plan that uses buses and Amtrak trains to move vulnerable citizens out of New Orleans.

The plan also eliminates the use of the Superdome and the Convention Center as shelters. About 100,000 families in the Gulf Coast region are living in trailers and mobile homes, making evacuation in the case of a big storm even more difficult.

New Orleans is especially vulnerable this year because the city, like others in Gulf states, is still rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina. The levee system in New Orleans has been criticized for its inability to withstand storms.

“It has Category 2 protection at best,” Ivor van Heerden of Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center and creator of 2004’s “Hurricane Pam” model, told the Louisiana Advocate. But Nagin has assured the public that the repaired levees “are going to be very, very secure.”

DHS has organized full-scale Hurricane Preparedness Exercise for the cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge, which will take place later in May.

“No matter how good you are at every level of government, it is accepted and understood by everybody in this business that help may not come to every single individual in the first 24 or 48 hours of a disaster. That means people have to be prepared,” Chertoff told an audience at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., in April.

DHS’ and other agencies’ efforts to prepare are coming as hurricane forecasters from Colorado State University have predicted “another very active” hurricane season for 2006 — though not as severe as 2005, which produced a record number of storms.