States Reopen Their Disaster Playbooks

 

With the horrors from Hurricane Katrina still flashing on live TV, Connecticut emergency officials and Gov. M. Jodi Rell (R) met Wednesday to decide how to evacuate 100,000 coastal residents if a Category 4 hurricane hit Long Island Sound.

The answer? Just about every which way -- from cars to trains to buses. "We went through the whole scenario," said one emergency official, who noted the group even discussed making prison inmates cook for refugees.

Connecticut's emergency strategy session was one of many hard looks triggered by Hurricane Katrina as a growing number of states combed through their disaster plans in hopes of avoiding another New Orleans catastrophe. Key among many of these impromptu summits was scrutiny of plans for evacuating and for keeping communication channels open.

In New Hampshire, the Legislature has called a special session next week to evaluate the state's emergency plans. Officials said they expect to discuss a range of disasters, including how the state would handle mass evacuations from nearby Boston and New York.

State Rep. Peter Batula (R), who chairs the state's emergency management committee, said he intends to stress the need for better communication among federal, state and local officials. "It seems that we had a meltdown of response in the Gulf states over the last week. And we want to make sure that our communication is where it ought to be," he said.

In nearby Maine, officials also are concerned about communication. But unlike New Hampshire and Louisiana, state emergency officials there said they are most concerned about linking state, local and county operations during a disaster because of how much power local authority holds in the rural northeastern state.

"Coordination is critical to any large-scale event," said Lynette Miller, spokeswoman for Maine Emergency Management Agency. "That's the lesson we are learning."

In addition, Maine Gov. John Baldacci (D) told emergency officials to look at the state's defenses against a hurricane -- even though a major hurricane has not hit Maine in at least a half century. Separately, the Maine coastal cities of Portland and South Portland called their own drill last week to make sure they could handle a threat from the sea.

"Our problem with coastal storms does not end with the hurricane season," said Miller, pointing to Maine's winter squalls.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) and Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) have called the failure of New Orleans' levees to contain floodwaters a "wake-up call for Californians." They urged the Army Corps of Engineers to address the deterioration of levees that channel river water in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and that experts say could be vulnerable to floods and earthquakes.

"A major breach in these levees could imperil hundreds of thousands of people and endanger most of the state's water supply," Feinstein said in a press release. "As we have seen in New Orleans, it would be a dramatic mistake to further delay the repairs that are necessary to protect communities from the ravages of floodwaters."

In Hawaii, an island chain 2,500 miles from the nearest major landmass, the threat of tsunamis, hurricanes and other large-scale disasters weighs heavily on the minds of emergency planners, especially concerns about inadequate space in public shelters.

"The big problem with an island jurisdiction like us is that we can't evacuate to another state when a hurricane comes through," said Larry Kanda, a mitigation planner in Hawaii's Civil Defense division.

State emergency managers in Hawaii say Katrina underscores the need for an additional 124,000 spaces in short-term shelters such as community centers and public schools to properly cope with a major natural disaster. Kanda said state officials are working to retrofit public buildings to serve as public shelters in emergencies. A proposal before the Hawaii Legislature would allocate $4 million in state funds over two years for disaster preparedness. Part of the money would reimburse residents for some costs of making their homes more resistant to high winds and rising waters.

"Looking at what happened in New Orleans and Mississippi has raised the awareness even more in terms of shelters. ...We know that for the first 72 hours, we are going to be pretty much on our own," Kanda said.

Tsunami fears also have plagued the West Coast of the continental United States since last December's massive tidal wave in South Asia. A June 14 earthquake off the U.S.'s Northwest coast triggered a short tsunami warning that forced the evacuation of about 10,000 people from low-lying areas in Oregon and allowed state officials to test for holes in their disaster-response plan.

Jay Wilson, earthquake and tsunami coordinator in Oregon's Office of Emergency Management, said June's false alarm and the problems officials along the Gulf Coast faced after Katrina have offered reminders about the importance of ensuring that first responders can communicate with each other and the public in times of crisis.

Wilson said Katrina also highlighted the specific challenges that the elderly, disabled and poor face during disasters.

"Emergency management officials, law enforcement officials and public health officials might reassess how well those plans are designed to deal with those populations," Wilson said.

Landlocked, arid Arizona is in little danger of the type of catastrophic hurricane-related flooding that has ravaged Louisiana. But Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) has vowed a thorough review of her state's evacuation plans and other elements of its disaster-response strategy. Napolitano told the Arizona Daily Star that other natural or man-made disasters still could paralyze the state's response capabilities and force large-scale evacuations.

”We constantly need to go back, look at what we have, think of scenarios where there's no power, no water," the newspaper quoted Napolitano as saying.

 
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