IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Report: Major cities not ready for catastrophe

In a federal analysis, the Homeland Security Department said major cities are woefully unprepared for catastrophes.
Work Continues On New Orleans' Levee System
The Homeland Security Department says the nation's major cities, including New Orleans, are still unprepared for disasters like a major hurricane.Mario Tama / Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News and news services

New Orleans is still woefully unprepared for catastrophes 10 months after Hurricane Katrina, and the two cities attacked on 9/11 don’t meet all guidelines for responding to major disasters, a federal security analysis concluded Friday.

Ten states were rated in a Homeland Security Department scorecard as having sufficient disaster response plans. But the analysis found the vast majority of America’s states, cities and territories still are far from ready for terror attacks, huge natural disasters or other wide-reaching emergencies.

“Frankly, we just have not in this country put the premium on our level of catastrophe planning that is necessary to be ready for those wide-scale events,” Homeland Security Undersecretary George Foresman told reporters.

City and state plans for emergencies like localized fires, floods and tornadoes “are good, they’re robust,” Foresman said. But plans for catastrophes “are not going to support us as they should.”

HSD not surprised about results
The analysis is based on a complicated scorecard for each state and city, rating their plans for evacuations, medical care, sheltering of victims, public alerts and other emergency priorities.

More than half of New Orleans’ plans — 58 percent — were described as insufficient to respond to catastrophes, and only 4 percent met the minimum federal guidelines.

NBC News reports that Homeland security officials say they're not surprised that the city isn't fully prepared for or focused on handling another catastrophe.

“One, we have a plan. two it’s going to continue to improve, and three it’s our job to convince everybody to get on board and we’ll all survive this hurricane season,” said Terry Ebbert, New Orleans’ homeland security director.

President Bush ordered the review of emergency response plans in a visit to New Orleans last Sept. 15, weeks after Katrina ravaged the city. It is based on a complicated scorecard for each of the 50 states, 75 major cities and six U.S. territories that rates plans for evacuations, medical care, sheltering of victims, public alerts and other emergency priorities.

Opponents call ratings oversimplified
The tepid ratings gave fodder to state and local officials who have hammered Homeland Security for cutting their emergency response funding. And the ratings may oversimplify security gaps that can’t be measured in a one-size-fits-all formula.

“You really have to look at each state individually and how they’re prepared for the emergencies that their experts anticipate,” said Jeff Welsh, spokesman for Maryland’s emergency management agency. “It’s a snapshot of the country as a whole, and to have an honest, realistic assessment of a single state you have to look at that single state.”

Foresman said the results highlight disparate and disconnected emergency plans in the absence of national preparedness standards. “This is not something that is a grand surprise — it has simply put documented numbers on what we intuitively knew in the post-9/11 era,” he said.

Hurricane Belt states fare better
Bright spots in the analysis were 10 states with response plans that Homeland Security deemed “sufficient” — the highest rating. Those states are: Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Vermont. It also found that 18 hurricane-prone states, from Maine to Texas, appeared to be better prepared for disasters than the rest of the country.

Florida, accustomed to being whipped with hurricane winds, was the only state assessed as ready in all nine categories of catastrophe planning. But state emergency manager Craig Fugate said he wasn’t that interested in the rankings.

“All this is nice, but the bottom line is we have to continue to strive to get better,” Fugate said. “Is it going to change anything that we’re doing? No.”

Louisiana ‘insufficient’
By comparison, Louisiana’s plans were deemed “insufficient” as the state continues to grapple with devastation from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Similarly, New Orleans’ plan received the lowest ranking possible, with only 4 percent of preparedness measures meeting federal standards first outlined in this scorecard.

New Orleans emergency preparedness director Chief Joseph Matthews said the city has been working with Homeland Security to develop “a sound evacuation plan.” But Col. Jeff Smith, acting director of the governor’s homeland security office, said of the “insufficient” ranking for the Louisiana plan: “That’s bologna. We certainly are much better prepared than we were in previous years.”

In New York and Washington, al-Qaida’s targets on Sept. 11, 2001, the analysis found lukewarm results.

‘We just got it’
The majority of the preparations for both cities were described as only partially sufficient by the department. Those ratings came two weeks after top New York and Washington officials complained bitterly that Homeland Security cut their federal aid for emergency responders this year.

“If we ever needed proof of the hypocrisy of the Department of Homeland Security, we just got it,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. “Today they say that New York, despite the efforts of the mayor and the city, is still not adequately prepared for disasters including terrorism, and yet they dramatically shortchanged our funding. They are not even reading their own reports.”

Foresman said there was no connection between the emergency plan analysis and the department’s grants. But he noted that while Homeland Security has sent $18 billion to spur state and local preparedness since 9/11, “very little of it has gone to planning, training and exercise.”

In California, which faces constant threats of earthquakes, fire and flooding, the study found only half the plans in the nation’s most populous state were adequate for a catastrophic disaster. The report highlighted areas California is working hardest to improve: mass evacuations, caring for vulnerable populations and coordinating with the private sector.

The scorecard was compiled by teams of former state and local emergency response directors over six months.