WASHINGTON – State officials will step in and help local communities if they are overwhelmed during a disaster — as they were in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit — according to a new Homeland Security Department plan that tries to clarify who's in charge during emergencies.
But local officials remain in charge of the response before, during and after disasters, the revised plan states.
After Hurricane Katrina slammed into the gulf coast in 2005, some New Orleans and Louisiana officials were not clear on who was responsible for evacuating and sheltering people or maintaining law and order.
This was in part because of the catastrophic nature of the disaster, but it didn't help that many officials had not read the lengthy emergency response plan written by the Homeland Security Department. As a result, the 488-page National Response Plan — created after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to coordinate local, state and federal response to disasters — has been undergoing revisions for the past two years.
The department's new plan, obtained by The Associated Press before its release Monday, specifies who's in charge of what. For instance, state government's role is to "supplement local efforts before, during and after incidents," according to the revised version of the response plan.
This has always been the state's job during disasters, said an administration official familiar with the revisions, but it was never clearly stated in national plans until now.
Katrina revealed other problems in the country's ability to respond to disasters.
Michael D. Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency at the time, was ultimately fired for his response to the hurricane. Among Brown's alleged missteps was his belief that he should report directly to the president during disasters — which created confusion about responsibility.
While this was once the protocol, that changed when FEMA became part of the Homeland Security Department — and that was not clearly spelled out in the old plan.
But the new framework still doesn't make the lines of reporting entirely clear.
The plan overview says the president "leads the federal government response effort," and it leaves the "overall coordination" and implementation of managing the disaster to the Homeland Security secretary. It designates the FEMA chief as the Homeland Security secretary's "principal adviser for matters relating to emergency management."
Local emergency managers who have seen a draft of the new plan have been critical of the revisions and say they were left out of the writing process altogether.
While many said the original plan was too long, they now say the new document is too short — the overview is less than 80 pages and there are more than 500 pages in annexes. The annexes include more detailed information, such as on evacuating pets in emergencies, which was not addressed in the original.
"It's not a plan," said Michael D. Selves, Johnson County, Kansas Emergency Management and Homeland Security director. "Any plan that's not the result of a collaborative process is suspect in our view."
The department intended to write the plan so that mayors, governors, emergency managers and the private sector could understand it more easily. But Selves, who is also president of the International Association of Emergency Managers, thinks the department fell short.
Bruce Baughman, former emergency management director in Alabama agreed. "It's more useful for elected officials," he said, adding that emergency planners need more details about what to do. "I don't think for an emergency planner it's helpful at all."
Between September 2006 and April 2007, the Homeland Security Department worked with hundreds of state and local officials on revising the plan, another administration official said.
The working groups identified 17 areas for improvement such as clarifying roles and responsibilities among federal, state and local officials and reviewing public safety and security missions. The new plan seeks to clarify those issues.
Since April, a team of 10 federal employees have been working on writing the new version. It was not realistic for all the state and local officials to be involved in the actual writing, said an administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the plan had not yet been made public.
Lawmakers were being briefed on the plan Monday, and the document will go out for a 30-day public comment period.