Ready for disaster? Maybe, maybe not

McClatchy Newspapers

Contractors from the Department of Homeland Security fanned out across the country in April, asking state and local officials alarming questions about how ready they were for new natural disasters or terrorist attacks.

If another hurricane like Katrina hit, the contractors asked, how would thousands, even millions, of people evacuate? Would a warning system alert the entire state? What would happen to the bodies of the dead?

The results of the $5 million attempt by Homeland Security to determine whether states and cities have adequate emergency plans are troubling, and they offer a glimpse of serious behind-the-scenes disagreements among government officials over how prepared the nation is for another catastrophe.

Homeland Security challenged the self-assessments of almost 60 percent of the states, cities and U.S. territories that participated in the review, according to the internal records obtained by McClatchy Newspapers.

The documents, which Homeland Security officials refuse to make public, reveal that in most of those cases the federal agency gave the states and cities significantly higher marks than they gave themselves.

The differing assessments reflect continuing confusion over how states and cities need to handle a catastrophe and what types of disasters they should be prepared to handle. That, in turn, threatens to undermine the federal government’s $18 billion effort to help them prepare for disasters and terrorist attacks.

"There’s a substantial gap between our understanding of preparedness and that of Homeland Security’s," said Jim Mullen, the director of Washington state’s emergency management division, which rated itself less prepared than federal officials did. "There is not a recognition of the full thrust of what has to be accomplished at the state and local level, and that’s because there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what we do and what we need."

To avoid a repeat of the mistakes of Katrina, federal, state and local governments will have to have more defined roles in responding to catastrophes, said Daniel Prieto, the director of the Homeland Security Center, a Washington policy organization.

"A lot of the problem comes simply from the fact that it’s hard for Washington to deal with so many local constituencies," Prieto said. "After September 11, there was a realization that the states and localities have a national role to play. We’re still working through the growing pains of what that relationship should look like."

Of the 131 jurisdictions Homeland Security reviewed, only two _ Florida and California _ agreed with the federal government’s assessments.

Fifty-eight states and cities rated themselves less prepared than Homeland Security did in at least four of nine categories, including evacuation plans, disaster warning systems and the ability to provide emergency medical treatment. Eighteen said they were better prepared.

Administration officials downplayed the different assessments and said they planned to work with cities and states to resolve what they called the normal give-and-take of any new government review.

"The approach we used is a very reasonable one," said George Foresman, Homeland Security’s undersecretary for preparedness. "But we have also made an unequivocal commitment that these are not going to be unilateral decisions. This is going to be a collaborative effort."

This year’s assessment is the first of what are expected to be annual reviews. Homeland Security officials said the results could be used to determine federal funding for states and cities, but they didn’t specify how.

Foresman said he thought some state and local officials might be skewing their assessments because they were afraid their funding might be cut.

"People will always wonder: ‘If I assess myself too well and am scored down, what does that mean?’ " said Foresman, a former Virginia homeland security official. "It’s always better to lower the expectations and score yourself down than to overscore yourself and appear overconfident."

But many state and local emergency officials said the assessment was flawed and that it offered the latest example of the federal government’s frequently unclear and sometimes misguided approach to disaster planning.

In a separate decision last month, Homeland Security slashed grants for New York and Washington, D.C., by 40 percent while increasing funding for communities that are considered less likely terrorist targets. Although the agency had overhauled its grant process to make it more objective and less political, many were mystified by the results.

"No one understood how these decisions were being made," Prieto said. "To me, it indicates they’re deciding a lot of these things almost in an ivory tower and not working hand-in-hand with the locals."

When President Bush addressed the nation from New Orleans three weeks after Hurricane Katrina ravaged Mississippi and Louisiana, he faced widespread criticism that his administration had failed to respond quickly to pleas for aid.

Bush ordered the national review of emergency plans, promised that the government would "learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina" and declared emergency planning to be a national security priority.

To carry out his mandate, Homeland Security made the assessments in two phases. First, officials asked states and cities to assess how much confidence they had in their emergency plans based on a checklist that included such topics as evacuation, medical care and warning systems.

Then, 77 former state and local homeland security officials, known as "peer reviewers," read the thousands of pages of city and state reports and interviewed state and local officials to determine whether the self-evaluations were correct.

The reviewers spent two or three days in each location.

In some cases, state and local officials said they found the assessments to be valuable, even though they disagreed with the results.

But many considered the government’s assessments rushed and ill-advised.

When the Homeland Security contractors arrived in Louisiana, the state was still reeling from Katrina. Within days, the reviewers concluded that the state didn’t have a sufficient medical care or warning system in place to handle a future catastrophe.

"We were still in the middle of responding to one of the worst natural disasters that the United States has ever faced," said Mark Smith, a spokesman for the state’s office of homeland security and emergency preparedness.

"To say at that point that Louisiana is grossly underprepared after the federal government itself had put a tremendous amount of money and time into working with the state to ensure preparedness seemed relatively silly."

Because of the short time frame, some state and local officials wondered whether the reviewers had enough time to evaluate accurately the quality of emergency plans.

Los Angeles city officials were taken aback to hear that Homeland Security marked them as not responding to their self-evaluations except in one category, public information.

"That must be in error," said Maurice Suh, Los Angeles’ deputy mayor of homeland security and public safety. "It’s obviously very important to us to be seen as responsive."

A Homeland Security spokesman said it wasn’t an error but a reflection of the fact that Los Angeles didn’t answer the questions properly. The peer reviewers ended up rating the city "partially sufficient" in most categories, including planning for an evacuation, medical care and communications.

In Georgia, state officials described themselves as confident in every category except evacuations for the disabled and sick. The Homeland Security reviewers, however, said that the state needed more work in most categories partly because it didn’t have a plan that details how counties, cities and the state would cooperate in a disaster.

"In fact, we have it because it’s required under federal law," said Buzz Weiss of Georgia’s emergency management agency. "Honestly, I’m not sure how they came to that conclusion."