ORLANDO, Fla. – Hurricane Katrina was a "wake-up call" for disaster responders to have evacuation routes set and emergency plans in place before the start of this year's storm season, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Wednesday.
Chertoff, in Orlando to meet with Gulf Coast state emergency managers and attend an annual hurricane preparedness conference, also said the Federal Emergency Management Agency should not be considered the front line of defense in future disasters.
In preparing for the upcoming hurricane season, now seven weeks away, "I think some parts (of the Gulf Coast) are readier than others," Chertoff said in an interview with The Associated Press during his flight to Orlando. "I think this has been a great wake-up call."
New Orleans, in particular, remains especially vulnerable as the city struggles with providing stable housing for evacuees, Chertoff said.
Anticipating concerns that the federal government would try to run disaster response, Chertoff said FEMA would play "a supporting role" to local and state authorities. "We all have a role to play in this," he said.
Chertoff's remarks came as the Homeland Security Department readies federal disaster responders in 13 states to deliver fast aid and supplies to victims during the looming hurricane season, which begins June 1.
The disaster coordinators are being placed in Gulf Coast and mid-Atlantic states as part of an organizational overhaul at Homeland Security and FEMA, 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.
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.
After meeting with emergency managers, Chertoff will be joined by FEMA acting director R. David Paulison and National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield.