Chertoff claims ’emergency reforms’ in place

The Homeland Security Department is tapping federal disaster responders for 13 states, readying them now to deliver fast aid and supplies to victims during the looming hurricane season.

The disaster coordinators are being placed in Gulf Coast and mid-Atlantic states as part of an organizational overhaul at Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which were widely blamed for the government’s sluggish response last year to Hurricane Katrina.

Additionally, FEMA will appoint top-level disaster officials to oversee the federal response in five regions where hurricanes are most likely to strike this year.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was to announce the changes at a hurricane conference in Orlando, Fla.

Usually, FEMA waits until after a disaster hits to put federal relief coordinators and overseers in place. But confusion in Katrina’s immediate aftermath demonstrated widespread failures when the federal government doesn’t work closely with state and local authorities, said a senior Homeland Security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the announcement had not been made.

State emergency managers fear that part of the plans will create another level of bureaucracy to deal with in the midst of a disaster.

Trina Sheets, executive director of the National Emergency Management Association, said state officials vigorously oppose the top-level disaster site overseers. Former FEMA director Michael Brown served in that role immediately after Katrina, and, Sheets said, “it was confusing.” Brown resigned under fire two weeks after Katrina.

“It’s just another layer of bureaucracy,” said Sheets, whose organizations represents emergency management officers from all 50 states

The National Emergency Management Association, however, supports putting a federal disaster coordinator in high-risk states. The 13 states to have one are: Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and New York.

Chertoff will meet with emergency managers in Orlando. He will be joined by FEMA acting director R. David Paulison and National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield.

On Tuesday, Chertoff promised that 11 top federal emergency response priorities will be ready by June 1. Those priorities include creating new systems to track supplies, aid victims and deliver quick information to all levels of government.

But he noted that much of the success or failure in responding to disasters will depend on how well state and local officials work with Washington and have their own emergency plans in place.

The 11 reforms are among 125 recommendations White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend issued last month as part of a federal “lessons learned” review of Katrina.


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