State Disaster Teams Vary in Approach, Design

Before last week's terrorist attacks, emergency workers in New York were used to dealing with the dangers of ice storms, snow emergencies and floods. Even so, the group charged with overseeing disastersknown as the New York State Emergency Management Office assembled an Offsite Air Disaster Task Force nearly a year ago, at the behest of Gov. George Pataki. Thanks to foresight like that, the panel completed an air disaster blueprint last spring, and "had plans in place" to deal with the terrorist attacks, spokesperson Dennis Michalski says.

All 50 states have some type of emergency management system . California, Illinois and Oklahoma offices are directly under the governor, while in Oregon, the Department of State Police oversees disasters.

Offices act as central clearinghouses for a range of state agency activity. Arizona's Emergency Operations Center includes representatives of the Department of Public Safety, Department of Health Services and the state's Radiation Regulatory Agency. In New York, the Emergency Management Office includes officials from state departments of agriculture, banking, transportation, economic development, education and criminal justice. .

Like many state programs, there's not a one-size-fits-all plan for disasters. Some situations, like cleaning up in the aftermath of a hurricane, will have similar relief and recovery responses.

"States have created the standards themselves, based on what officials preferred to do," Cobuluis says. On the subject of terrorism, a NEMA panel produced in August 2000 a set of ten principles for a national preparedness strategy. Among the group's suggestions: that the nation's governors and state emergency management agencies should coordinate all federal resources, programs and activities, and state and local governments should get reports of credible threats that are based on "solid research, analysis and sound science, rather than worst-case scenarios."

NEMA, in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency , helps states share information by producing a State Director Handbook for members each year. The most recent edition includes updates on the governors' role in emergency management, state and local emergency management during times of disaster, and tips on how to work with state legislators. How prepared are states to deal with terrorist attacks along the scale of what took place in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia? It's hard to say, Cobuluis says. "States are very prepared to react to these types of situations. As you've seen in New York, firefighters and police officers couldn't have been more aggressive in their efforts. It's difficult to perceive (or plan for) anything like this until it occurs," she says.

New York's Michalski agrees. Despite numerous disaster drills held each year for state agency workers and experience gleaned from myriad federally declared disasters in the state, no one saw this coming. "We had a lot going for us, but this is something the United States has never seen before, not on this scale. You always plan for the worst and hope for the best. This is something we never wanted to see."


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