Louisiana Hurricane Drills Uncover Communication Flaws

Louisiana emergency crews discovered they still had trouble communicating with various agencies during a two-day mock hurricane evacuation, officials said Wednesday.

But the drill also suggested that distribution of food, water and ice would go more smoothly if disaster strikes again.

As the state prepares for the start of hurricane season next month, officials tested new computer equipment, evacuation routes and shipments for supplies — all to avoid the chaos that followed last year's deadly Hurricane Katrina that killed more than 1,000 people.

Col. Jeff Smith, the state's emergency director, said the drill — the largest ever in the state — highlighted the need for additional training, more computers at the state emergency operations center and improved communication among various agencies and the media.

"There's a lot more people involved," Smith said of the state's new emergency plans. "We have to have more training and coordination."

A misunderstanding about who had jurisdiction over a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer park for evacuees canceled the first day of mock evacuations on Tuesday but was later resolved.

The park, 10 miles north of Baton Rouge in Baker, has more than 500 camper-style travel trailers that house about 1,500 people displaced by Katrina. Officials are concerned about the safety of travel trailer residents in high winds.

Smith was satisfied with the state's new communications equipment, including mobile, self-contained systems that allow first responders to communicate with each other when telephone and power lines are down.

National Guardsmen launched one of the satellite communications systems from the hood of a vehicle parked in front of City Hall and radioed another Guard unit south of New Orleans.

"Hopefully we won't have to use it, but it'll be here before the storm in case we need it," said Terry Ebbert, director of the city's Office of Homeland Security.

Smith said more staging areas and more people to work those areas improved the coordination of supplies.

Bar-coded wrist bands and computers will help officials keep track of evacuees.

Last year, as Hurricane Katrina approached, thousands of New Orleans' poor were left behind because they had no transportation, could not afford to leave or did not know where to go. The Louisiana Superdome and the convention center became shelters of last resort where thousands sweltered for days, suffering through shortages of food and water.

Mayor Ray Nagin has said there will be no shelters in the city this time.

Although Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff planned to participate in the drill, he was kept in Washington to attend a similar exercise with Cabinet-level officials. He is scheduled to be in Louisiana next week.

Scientists predict the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season, which begins June 1 and runs through November, could produce 16 named storms, including six major hurricanes.

In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush said Wednesday he was pleased with his state's annual hurricane drill.

"Every storm brings about a whole new set of circumstances that we have to train for," the governor said. "We are ahead of the game."

The state also showed off some of its new equipment, including a National Guard Chinook helicopter, and a mobile emergency operations van, both of which saw duty in the aftermath of Katrina.