Katrina was "wake-up call" for hurricane prep, Chertoff says | VailDaily.com

Katrina was "wake-up call" for hurricane prep, Chertoff says

Associated Press Writer

ORLANDO, Fla. – Emergency officials from hurricane-stricken states appealed to the nation’s homeland security chief Wednesday for help preparing for the upcoming storm season, seeking plans for everything from evacuation routes to pet protection.The requests underscored what Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff described as a “great wake-up call” for state and local authorities following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.Chertoff, attending an annual hurricane preparedness conference in Orlando, said the federal government should not be considered the first line of defense during disasters. But he acknowledged that parts of the Katrina-battered Gulf Coast would need more aggressive federal aid in readying for the June 1 start of the hurricane season.”I think some parts 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.”State and local officials who met with Chertoff for an hour-long discussion said they did not want the Federal Emergency Management Agency to overtake responsibilities of on-the-ground emergency responders. But they urged Chertoff to revamp federal plans to send aid quickly to disaster sites.”I think there are challenges that we really need to work on,” said John Droneburg, director of Maryland’s emergency management agency. “The system will not work unless we solve some of these.”Many of the requests for help boiled down to money.In South Carolina, roads used as evacuation routes need federal improvements, one state official said. Deteriorating beaches in Ocean City, Md., should be restored as a natural defense to storms, said Mayor James N. Mathias. And victims in disaster sites everywhere need help in evacuating their pets to prevent “a lot of sad and tragic stories,” said Laura Bevan, a regional director for the U.S. Humane Society.Chertoff mostly listened during the discussion, and did not commit to any specific financial aid for states or local authorities.Yet the local concerns reflect “a high level of anxiety,” said Mathias, a Democrat who has served as mayor for 10 years.”You think about your family, pets, and anything you can do to address them is what gets people up and going,” Mathias said. “There is no quality of life after the fact.”FEMA and the Homeland Security Department anticipate reviewing all state emergency and evacuation plans by June 1.Additionally, Homeland Security is testing its own response plans and abilities in five Gulf Coast exercises next month, and the department will name top-level officers to oversee the federal response in 13 East Coast and Gulf Coast states before the storm season hits.Still, Chertoff said all levels of government must have a “crystal clear understanding on roles and responsibilities and capabilities when a hurricane hits.””We need to have real clarity about what local and state capabilities are, and what gaps there are, and what capabilities we need to bring to the table,” said Chertoff. He will meet Friday with state officials in Mississippi and Alabama to discuss hurricane preparations, and next week with Louisiana authorities.In an interview, Chertoff also forcefully repeated his intention to keep FEMA within the Homeland Security Department. He was responding to recent calls from former FEMA directors James Lee Witt and Michael Brown who contend that Katrina showed that the agency is too bogged down by bureaucracy to respond quickly to disasters.FEMA was wrapped into Homeland Security when the department was created three years ago. Before that, the FEMA director reported directly to the White House.Chertoff noted that FEMA was able to quickly order the Coast Guard – which is also part of Homeland Security – to rescue an estimated 33,000 Katrina victims instead of having to ask an outside agency for help.”It’s a big mistake to go into hurricane season and believe pulling FEMA out of DHS would be anything other than a recipe for failure,” Chertoff said.Later, Brown, who was also at the conference and who served under Chertoff, stood with his hands in his pocket and did not join in the polite applause after his former boss’ 20-minute speech to a packed ballroom.”I think we’re witnessing the dismantling of FEMA,” Brown said, charging that Chertoff doesn’t understand the federal disaster agency, its role and capabilities. He said some of the secretary’s proposals, including sending people to hurricane prone states, “is reinventing the wheel” because FEMA already does that.—Associated Press writer Seth Borenstein in Orlando contributed to this report.On the Net:Homeland Security Department: http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/Vail, Colorado

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