Report: Homeland Security still lacking in disaster readiness
By Bruce Alpert
Copyright 2007 The Times-Picayune Publishing Company
WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security has failed to meet 18 of 24 criteria for emergency preparedness and response, raising concerns about its ability to respond to a major hurricane such as Katrina, a congressional watchdog agency said Thursday.
But Paul Schneider, undersecretary for management at the department, took exception to the Government Accountability Office report, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said it appears the agency didn't get credit for recent enhancements in preparedness. Still, Collins said "I'm very concerned" that the agency only made "limited progress" in establishing an all-hazards national response plan," including the kind of government-wide coordination needed to respond to a disaster as big as Hurricane Katrina.
In its report, the GAO said the department hasn't demonstrated that it has the capacity to provide emergency assistance and services in a timely manner; implement a plan to ensure interoperable communications among rescue workers and first-responders from state, local and federal agencies; and develop a system for collecting and disseminating lessons learned to emergency workers.
During Katrina, many cell phones and other communication devices didn't work or weren't compatible with other systems.
"DHS did not provide us with concrete evidence to demonstrate that the response teams' readiness and capacity have improved since hurricanes Katrina and Rita" in 2005, the GAO said in its 320-page report. "Although DHS has tested its response teams' capabilities in several small-scale disasters, they have not been tested in a large-scale disaster."
Schneider said the conclusion is unfair. "Thank God," he said, that the department, and its emergency response arm, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, hasn't had a major disaster like Katrina to fully test its plans.
In response to questions from Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., Schneider said that Homeland Security has come a long way since Katrina.
"We did not have assets on the ground, we had no contracting capability, we had no familiarity with local businesses, we were not prepared to go execute and help the community," Schneider said of the situation when Katrina struck Aug. 29, 2005.
Since then, he said, the agency has placed 60 trained contract officers throughout the Gulf Coast region, worked closely with local businesses and industries to understand their capabilities, pre-positioned emergency supplies so they can be quickly brought into a future Gulf Coast disaster and prepared contracts with local businesses to ensure a significantly faster response.
Landrieu, who expressed disappointment but not surprise at the GAO findings, said it's clear from the report that the agency has a lot to do to ensure a better response to the next big disaster.
"Second-rate preparedness and response is simply unacceptable, and our national preparedness and recovery infrastructure must be dramatically improved -- from top to bottom, start to finish," Landrieu said. "I will not give up this fight, and will continue to urge drastic change until we have the first-class system of readiness and response our nation requires."
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., urged quick action on a water resources bill that authorizes key hurricane protection and coastal restoration projects in Louisiana. Reid spokesman Jim Manley said the bill is on his list of things Reid wants the Senate to take up over the next five weeks, although no firm date has been set for a vote.
The GAO report found that Homeland Security has had a mixed record in terms of dealing with continued terrorism threats and enforcing immigration laws. The report said the department made significant progress in improving maritime security, but only moderate progress in aviation security and critical infrastructure protection. It said that Homeland Security has not only failed to achieve a comprehensive strategy for agency-wide transformation, but also has failed to adequately involve the private sector in preventing potential terrorist attacks and in emergency response.
"The report confirms what many of us believed," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn. "First, that the department has made important progress establishing programs and procedures that make us safer today than we were before the Sept. 11 (terrorist) attacks. And second, that there are also serious deficiencies at the department that require more focused attention and resources then they have received to date."
Schneider said he didn't dispute the notion that improvements are needed but complained that the GAO sometimes used "flawed methodology" to evaluate the agency. For example, he said the department has actively trained federal, state and local government and non-governmental leaders and first-responders since the agency released its initial National Response Plan but gets an unsatisfactory mark from GAO because it continues to upgrade and revise the plan.