Authorities enter the 2006 hurricane season better prepared than last year but not as ready as they would like to be.
Emergency preparedness experts say the government’s response during this hurricane season, which started June 1, will be better than its performance after hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005. They agree, however, that it will probably still lag in several important areas.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency and other officials say they have implemented technology to eliminate many of the logistical delays, communications snafus and command mix-ups that embarrassed federal officials and infuriated hurricane victims during last year’s tropical storm season. FEMA, for example, has addressed most of the information technology deficiencies outlined in recent Government Accountability Office reports, said David Paulison, FEMA’s director. FEMA and the Homeland Security Department are tracking commodities better, have improved communications systems and have put experienced leaders in place, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said.
Federal, state and local officials have good reason to hope those agencies are prepared. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted that this year’s hurricane season could produce 13 to 16 named storms, including eight to 10 hurricanes. Four to six of the hurricanes could be major, reaching Category 3, 4 or 5 on the Saffir-Simpson intensity scale.
The federal government did not have good situational awareness during Katrina, Paulison said. “We should have had a better handle on the [Louisiana] Superdome,” he said. “We should have had a better handle on the convention center. We should have had a better handle on the levees.”
This year, before major storms, FEMA will position people with satellite video and voice communications equipment who can communicate with FEMA headquarters, Paulison said. The Defense Department will provide DHS with real-time or near-real-time aerial imagery from surveillance planes and orbital cameras, said Paul McHale, assistant secretary of Defense for homeland defense.
To improve logistics, FEMA has put sophisticated Global Positioning System technology into all of its transport trucks at the agency’s regional headquarters in Atlanta and Fort Worth, Texas, Paulison said. The systems show each truck’s position in real time, he said.
“At least we’ll know where they are,” Paulison said. “Last year, we didn’t have a clue.” In the 2007 season, FEMA will track all commodities, too, he said.
Jeff Vining, vice president of homeland security and law enforcement at Gartner, a research firm, said DHS and FEMA will do a better job of tracking supplies and vehicles this year. But he added that many of the database upgrades and integration projects that could improve information sharing won’t be ready for use this season and may not be for a while.
FEMA’s search-and-rescue teams could not communicate with other federal, state and local teams last year, Vining said. The agency must be able to communicate with other agencies, especially if the primary communications infrastructure is unavailable, he said.
DHS has mapped the Gulf Coast’s federal, state and local communications architecture so that the department can be ready to develop workarounds to maintain communications, said George Foresman, DHS’ undersecretary for preparedness.
This year, FEMA will use the U.S. Fire Administration’s Preparedness Network to improve real-time communications nationwide, he said. The network lets responders use cellular phones and wireless personal digital assistants, for example.
Interoperable communications are now better able to accommodate the demand, said Army Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau. “We have spent $800 million in the past nine months to get better at interoperable communications.”
Members of the House Government Reform Committee want FEMA to improve its outreach to state and local response partners, said Larry Halloran, the committee’s deputy staff director. Halloran said state and local partners were not consulted on changes to the National Response Plan or during a hurricane preparation exercise in New Orleans in mid-May. Committee staff members who attended the exercise said federal responders, state and local responders, and privacy groups each met in separate rooms and shared little information with the other groups, Halloran said.
Barry Scanlon, a senior vice president and partner at James Lee Witt Associates, an emergency management consulting firm, said IT is not the only factor that will determine how well government agencies respond during the 2006 hurricane season. “The real test is how successful they are in sharing information up the chain and down the chain,” he said.
GPS and other technologies are helpful, but responders at all levels need real-time information sharing to make better deployment and incident management decisions, Scanlon said. Politics, not just technology, plays a role in that, he added.
Paulison said FEMA’s big challenge “is to repair the frayed federal/state partnership that used to be so strong,” Scanlon said.
Even though he and other emergency management experts say they like the new FEMA chief, draconian budget cuts at the agency in the past few years have put states on the defensive, he said. “They don’t think FEMA is going to be there for them.”
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