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Homeland Security: U.S. not ready for disasters

Cities and states remain unprepared for catastrophic disasters, a new Homeland Security Department analysis concludes, despite threats of terrorism, hurricanes and pandemic flu.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Most American cities and states remain unprepared for catastrophes, a government analysis concludes, calling the shortcomings in emergency planning a cause “for significant national concern.”

Nearly five years after the 9/11 attacks and 10 months after Hurricane Katrina, the Homeland Security Department concluded that nationwide response plans for major disasters are antiquated and often uncoordinated.

Although emergency plans appear to be stronger in 18 states along the nation’s “Hurricane Belt,” the analysis cited preparedness gaps in 131 state and city emergency response plans. Planning for evacuations, too, remains “an area of profound concern,” the review found.

“We rely to a troubling extent on plans that are created in isolation, are insufficiently detailed and are not subject to adequate review,” concluded the department’s 160-page review of findings and annexes that was delivered to Congress on Thursday evening. A copy of the review was obtained by The Associated Press.

“Time and again, these factors extract a severe penalty in the midst of a crisis: precious time is consumed in the race to correct the misperceptions of federal, state and local responders about roles, responsibilities and actions,” the review found. “The result is uneven performance and repeated and costly operational miscues.”

Not fully prepared
President Bush ordered the review of state and city emergency plans in a speech in New Orleans last Sept. 15, weeks after Katrina ravaged the city. It analyzes response and evacuation procedures for all 50 states, the nation’s 75 largest cities and six U.S. territories.

Documents made available to the AP did not cite individual cities or states, and a Homeland Security official suggested that portion of the report will be released later.

It criticized the states and cities in several key areas, including:

  • Failing to address emergency needs for sick, elderly or poor people unable to help themselves.
  • Being too slow to issue disaster warnings and other alerts to the public.
  • Failing to designate a clear chain of command during major disasters.

“Most review participants have demonstrated that they are able to successfully manage commonly experienced incidents, yet are not fully prepared for a catastrophic event,” the review concluded. It called the gaps cause “for significant national concern.”

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

Hurricane Belt states better off
Those states hugging the Atlantic and Gulf coasts were judged by peers to have emergency plans “that were more likely to be rated sufficient ... than other states,” the review noted. Plans by Hurricane Belt states to manage resources, health and medical issues and communications were “noticeably stronger” in comparison, it found.

Similarly, cities in Hurricane Belt states also were rated more likely to be prepared in issuing warnings, managing resources, distributing emergency public information and mass care. But in a glaring exception, the cities were judged as comparatively not sufficient in planning for evacuations.

The review is the latest in a series of government and expert analyses since Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast last Aug. 29. Nearly all have found lacking preparedness levels for large-scale disasters. The Sept. 11 commission and other panels have also found shortcomings in preparedness for another terrorist attack.

The latest report was released as the Senate sent President Bush a $94.5 billion emergency spending bill that included funds for new aid for Gulf Coast hurricane victims.

The review noted several failings on the federal government’s part, citing a need for clearer guidance and up-to-date preparedness data to state and local officials. It also urged better collaboration with private businesses to help evacuate disabled people and with charities and other non-governmental services to stockpile aid for disaster victims.