Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Crisis chief recalls Katrina hurdles

U.S. must improve response, he says

The nation must make major changes to the way it responds to disasters such as hurricanes or terrorist attacks, New Orleans' homeland security chief told more than 3,000 scientists Monday at the American Meteorological Society's annual meeting.

Director Terry Ebbert was a last-minute replacement for Mayor Ray Nagin, who was scheduled to recount the city's response to Hurricane Katrina for the meteorologists. Nagin had to cancel because Martin Luther King Jr. Day ceremonies elsewhere in the city were delayed, Ebbert said.

Ebbert focused on the continuing problems he said he faces weighing federal regulatory requirements against the need to save lives and protect evacuees.

He said local emergency managers are handcuffed by paperwork required by the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which calls for detailed accounting of all emergency expenses.

"They can't ask us for overtime sheets for yesterday" in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, he said. "We have got to be driven by the importance of getting the job done, saving lives."

Ebbert said he faced similar problems ensuring compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and with post-Katrina court orders prohibiting him from seizing guns from evacuees.

"I don't want to be faced with laws that say, 'Under an emergency declaration, Terry, you cannot take a weapon from any citizen,' " he said in his talk at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. "I want to be able to control the cockroaches of the world who want to take advantage of our citizens."

He called it ironic that federal law also demands that he ensure that all evacuees under his control are unarmed when they board trains or airplanes.

The National Rifle Association sued the city after Katrina to force New Orleans police to return guns seized in the storm's aftermath. The lawsuit is pending.

Ebbert said the nation remains incapable of providing the supplies and manpower needed in the aftermath of a disaster in the same way that its military can supply and move troops into battle during a war.

At the local level, Ebbert said, the greatest challenge is instilling in the public the urgency to plan in advance for disasters. Though about 25,000 people in New Orleans are expected to need assistance leaving their homes because of illness or disability, fewer than 12,000 have registered with the city's evacuation program.