Feds implementing post-Katrina reforms

/ Source: The Associated Press

The federal government is on pace to have 11 top-priority reforms in emergency response completed by the June 1 start of hurricane season, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Tuesday.

But much of the success or failure in responding to disasters will depend on how well state and local officials work with Washington and have their own emergency plans in place, Chertoff said.

“This is a case where we ... all hang together or we hang separately,” Chertoff told The Associated Press. “We’ve got to be operating jointly, we’ve got to be in partnership.”

The 11 must-do reforms demand restructuring changes — like making sure that officials at all levels of government can and are communicating with each other; that Washington has a real-time, on-the-ground picture of the disaster as it hits; and that federal response staff and supplies are ready to go.

They also call for giving the military a greater role in coordinating a federal response, updating the national emergency alert system, and getting aid to victims faster.

The 11 reforms are among 125 recommendations White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend issued last month as part of a federal “lessons learned” review of Hurricane Katrina.

Chertoff was among a handful of senior level officials — including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Peter Pace and federal Gulf Coast reconstruction czar Don Powell — who on Monday briefed President Bush on the status of the changes.

Many of the rest of the 125 recommendations will take longer to complete, Chertoff said. Some federal contracts, for example, need to be rebid and that will take “a certain amount of time,” he said. Other changes — for example, special reconnaissance teams have been outfitted with real-time communications equipment to stream video out of disaster sites — are under way.

Those teams, and other equipment, will be tested in the Gulf Coast next month before a hurricane strikes, Chertoff said.

“Everybody’s mindful of the fact that as the water gets warmer and the temperature changes and we get into summer, we also get into a time of greater danger,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to be ready for it.”

Earlier, Chertoff spoke in front of a travel and tourism conference, where he called for requiring travelers’ birth dates or addresses to be matched against similarly named people on the government’s terror watch list to identify suspicious passengers more accurately.

Critics fear giving the government such information could violate people’s privacy rights.

Chertoff suggested that “we think very carefully about whether people feel that they have their privacy more deeply invaded when they’re pulled aside and questioned, or when they are required to give their date of birth so we can distinguish between those who we are really worried about, and those who are truly innocent.”