Homeland Security heeding Katrina's 'wakeup call'

Michael Chertoff says his agency will be more aggressive this year in making sure states are ready for hurricanes.

Published April 13, 2006

ORLANDO - Emergency officials from hurricane-stricken states appealed to the nation's homeland security chief Wednesday for help preparing for the coming storm season, seeking plans for everything from evacuation routes to pet protection.

The requests underscored what Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff described as a "great wakeup call" for state and local authorities following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Chertoff, attending an annual hurricane preparedness conference here, said the federal government should not be considered the first line of defense during disasters. But he acknowledged that parts of the Katrina-battered Gulf Coast would need more aggressive federal aid in readying for the hurricane season starting June 1.

"I think some parts are readier than others," Chertoff said in an interview with the Associated Press during his flight to Orlando. "I think this has been a great wakeup call."

State and local officials who met with Chertoff for an hourlong discussion said they did not want the Federal Emergency Management Agency to take over responsibilities of on-the-ground emergency responders. But they urged Chertoff to revamp federal plans to send aid quickly to disaster sites.

Many of the requests for help boiled down to money.

In South Carolina, roads used as evacuation routes need federal improvements, one state official said. Deteriorating beaches in Ocean City, Md., should be restored as a natural defense to storms, said Mayor James N. Mathias. And victims in disaster sites everywhere need help in evacuating their pets to prevent "a lot of sad and tragic stories," said Laura Bevan, a regional director for the U.S. Humane Society.

Chertoff mostly listened during the discussion, and did not commit to any specific financial aid.

FEMA and the Homeland Security Department anticipate reviewing all state emergency and evacuation plans by June 1.

Additionally, the department is testing its response plans and abilities in five Gulf Coast exercises next month, and it will name officers to oversee the federal response in 13 East Coast and Gulf Coast states before the storm season.

Still, Chertoff said, all levels of government must have a "crystal clear understanding on roles and responsibilities and capabilities when a hurricane hits."

"We need to have real clarity about what local and state capabilities are, and what gaps there are, and what capabilities we need to bring to the table," said Chertoff, who will meet separately in the coming days with Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana officials.

In an interview, Chertoff also repeated his intention to keep FEMA in the Homeland Security Department. He was responding to recent calls from former FEMA directors James Lee Witt and Michael Brown, who contend that Katrina showed the agency is too bogged down by bureaucracy to respond quickly to disasters.

FEMA was wrapped into the Homeland Security Department when the department was created three years ago. Before that, the FEMA director reported to the White House.

Chertoff noted that FEMA was able to quickly order the Coast Guard - which is also part of his department - to rescue an estimated 33,000 Katrina victims instead of having to ask an outside agency for help.

"It's a big mistake to go into hurricane season and believe pulling FEMA out of DHS would be anything other than a recipe for failure," Chertoff said.