DHS: New York, D.C., New Orleans Still Not Prepared for Disasters

New York City and Washington — the two cities hit hardest by the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks — are still not completely ready to respond to another major disaster, according to a Homeland Security Department report issued Friday.

The security analysis also found that 10 months after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans, the Crescent City is still woefully unprepared for catastrophes. And all states west of the Mississippi River, with the exception of Texas, have insufficient emergency response plans in place, the report found.

Click here to read the DHS report (pdf).

But 10 states — Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Vermont — do have decent plans established for how to deal with any major natural or man-made disaster, according to the report. Homeland Security deemed those response plans "sufficient" — the highest rating.

It also found that 18 hurricane-prone states, from Maine to Texas, appeared to be better prepared for disasters than the rest of the country.

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"Frankly, we just have not in this country put the premium on our level of catastrophe planning that is necessary to be ready for those wide-scale events," Homeland Security Undersecretary George Foresman told reporters.

City and state plans for emergencies like localized fires, floods and tornadoes "are good, they're robust," Foresman said. But plans for catastrophes "are not going to support us as they should."

President Bush ordered the review of emergency response plans in a visit to New Orleans last Sept. 15, weeks after Katrina ravaged the city. It is based on a complicated scorecard for each of the 50 states, 75 major cities and six U.S. territories that rates plans for evacuations, medical care, sheltering of victims, public alerts and other emergency priorities.

The tepid ratings gave fodder to state and local officials who have hammered Homeland Security for cutting their emergency response funding. And the ratings may oversimplify security gaps that can't be measured in a one-size-fits-all formula.

"You really have to look at each state individually and how they're prepared for the emergencies that their experts anticipate," said Jeff Welsh, spokesman for Maryland's emergency management agency. "It's a snapshot of the country as a whole, and to have an honest, realistic assessment of a single state you have to look at that single state."

Foresman said the results highlight disparate and disconnected emergency plans in the absence of national preparedness standards. "This is not something that is a grand surprise — it has simply put documented numbers on what we intuitively knew in the post-9/11 era," he said.

Florida, accustomed to being whipped with hurricane winds, was the only state assessed as ready in all nine categories of catastrophe planning. But state emergency manager Craig Fugate said he wasn't that interested in the rankings.

"All this is nice, but the bottom line is we have to continue to strive to get better," Fugate said. "Is it going to change anything that we're doing? No."

By comparison, Louisiana's plans were deemed "insufficient" as the state continues to grapple with devastation from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Similarly, New Orleans' plan received the lowest ranking possible, with only 4 percent of preparedness measures meeting federal standards first outlined in this scorecard.

New Orleans emergency preparedness director Chief Joseph Matthews said the city has been working with Homeland Security to develop "a sound evacuation plan." But Col. Jeff Smith, acting director of the governor's homeland security office, said of the "insufficient" ranking for the Louisiana plan: "That's bologna. We certainly are much better prepared than we were in previous years."

In New York and Washington, Al Qaeda's targets on Sept. 11, 2001, the analysis found lukewarm results.

The majority of the preparations for both cities were described as only partially sufficient by the department. Those ratings came two weeks after top New York and Washington officials complained bitterly that Homeland Security cut their federal aid for emergency responders this year.

"If we ever needed proof of the hypocrisy of the Department of Homeland Security, we just got it," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. "Today they say that New York, despite the efforts of the mayor and the city, is still not adequately prepared for disasters including terrorism, and yet they dramatically shortchanged our funding. They are not even reading their own reports."

Foresman said there was no connection between the emergency plan analysis and the department's grants. But he noted that while Homeland Security has sent $18 billion to spur state and local preparedness since 9/11, "very little of it has gone to planning, training and exercise."

In California, which faces constant threats of earthquakes, fire and flooding, the study found only half the plans in the nation's most populous state were adequate for a catastrophic disaster. The report highlighted areas California is working hardest to improve: mass evacuations, caring for vulnerable populations and coordinating with the private sector.

The scorecard was compiled by teams of former state and local emergency response directors over six months.