Just two days before a U.S. House investigative committee report cited 90 failures at all government levels following Hurricane Katrina, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) study revealed a general lack of confidence from states and urban areas in their basic emergency, evacuation and mass casualty plans. However, state and local officials say their lack of confidence is in the survey's questions and not the adequacy of their disaster plans.

The study, the National Plan Review: Phase 1 Report, was released in February and is the first of a two-part DHS review to strengthen plans and unify government actions in response to catastrophic events. The report, ordered by President Bush, who in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita declared emergency planning a national priority, also meets the Congressional requirement under the 2006 DHS Appropriations Act to provide the status of catastrophic planning in all states, territories and 75 of the nation's largest urban areas.

The Phase 1 results are based on self-assessments received from the states, territories, and urban areas in early January on their Emergency Operations Plans' (EOPs) status and when plans were last updated and exercised. Specifically, jurisdictions were asked about nine plan components — including basic plan, communications, direction and control, public warning, emergency public information, evacuation, mass care, health and medical, and resource management.

When asked if their basic plans met federal guidelines to manage catastrophic events, more than 92 percent of states replied “yes,” but only 39 percent indicated that the plans were adequate. Urban areas followed suit with a similar 81 percent and 30 percent in response to the same questions.

Although some officials believe the report does not justify the findings, they blame the broad nature of the study rather than lack of preparedness. “No city, state or region can adequately prepare to handle a true catastrophic event,” says Richard Gaston, coordinator of Emergency Management for Sugarland, Texas. “By definition, a catastrophic event will overwhelm local capabilities.”

Instead, local officials say the study should have focused on lessons learned instead of generalities. “The questions and definitions in the self-assessments were vague and subject to lots of interpretation,” says Jack Colley, chief of the Texas Governor's Division of Emergency Management, who used the state's current emergency plan during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

For instance, when asked about confidence in their mass evacuation and mass casualty plans, the number of negative responses reached 47 percent and 52 percent respectively for states, and 44 percent and 40 percent respectively for urban areas. With results generally showing an overall lack of confidence, the questions covered particular situations and geographical areas. “Cities like Seattle do not need a mass evacuation plan, so we rated lower on that question,” says Barb Graff, director of Emergency Management for Seattle. “Asking us about our evacuation plans is like trying to use a measurement stick on us that doesn't fit our height.”

While Graff admits Seattle could do a better job with mass care and medical services, she indicated that local hospitals are often overwhelmed, making adequate preparation for mass casualties nearly impossible. “There are many more elements to emergency planning than this survey touched on,” Graff says. “While it provided a broad, quick snapshot of cities and states, at some point the federal government really needs to look at itself.”

DHS recognizes that emergency planning is a shared responsibility and in its report, commits to strengthening the collective planning capabilities of all levels of government. DHS is planning the second phase of the review to validate submissions and determine requirements for planning assistance.

Teams of former state and local homeland security and emergency management officials will visit states and cities over the next few months to review respondents' plans and recommend improvements. The results will be reported to the President and Congress before June 1 — the start of the 2006 hurricane season.
Lori Burkhammer is a Washington-based freelance writer.