States Feel Left Out Of Disaster Planning

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By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 8, 2007

A decision by the Bush administration to rewrite in secret the nation's emergency response blueprint has angered state and local emergency officials, who worry that Washington is repeating a series of mistakes that contributed to its bungled response to Hurricane Katrina nearly two years ago.

State and local officials in charge of responding to disasters say that their input in shaping the National Response Plan was ignored in recent months by senior White House and Department of Homeland Security officials, despite calls by congressional investigators for a shared overhaul of disaster planning in the United States.

"In my 19 years in emergency management, I have never experienced a more polarized environment between state and federal government," said Albert Ashwood, Oklahoma's emergency management chief and president of a national association of state emergency managers.

The national plan is supposed to guide how federal, state and local governments, along with private and nonprofit groups, work together during emergencies. Critics contend that a unilateral approach by Washington produced an ill-advised response plan at the end of 2004 -- an unwieldy, 427-page document that emphasized stopping terrorism at the expense of safeguarding against natural disasters.

Bruce Baughman, Ashwood's predecessor as president of the National Emergency Management Association and a 32-year veteran of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said that a draft of the revised plan released to state officials last week marks a step backward because its authors did not set requirements or consult with field operators nationwide who will use it to request federal aid, adjust state and county plans, and train workers.

"Where's the beef?" asked Baughman, who is Alabama's emergency management chief. "I don't have any problems with a framework . . . but it's not a plan . . . and it's not national. Who are we fooling here?"

Last week, DHS circulated to federal and state officials a streamlined, 71-page draft, renamed the "National Response Framework." DHS spokeswoman Laura Keehner said that state and local officials were included earlier in the decision-making process, but that an initial draft they produced with FEMA and DHS preparedness officials in May "did not meet expectations." The initial collaboration resulted in what several federal officials familiar with the process described as a convoluted version that sought to satisfy too many constituencies and re-fought old bureaucratic battles.

The disagreement over the plan comes at a time of increasing mistrust between Washington and state homeland security officials. In recent months, they have sparred over dwindling federal grants, the adequacy of local intelligence-gathering efforts and what states regard as Washington's reluctance to share information about potential threats.

"Coordination between state and local governments and the feds . . . seems to be getting worse rather than better," said Timothy Manning, head of emergency management in New Mexico and a member of a DHS-appointed steering committee that initially worked on the emergency plan before being shut out of the deliberations in May.

Testifying before a House panel last week, Ashwood and colleagues openly questioned why the draft was revised behind closed doors. The final document was to be released June 1, at the start of this year's hurricane season.

Federal officials, Ashwood said, appear to be trying to create a legalistic document to shield themselves from responsibility for future disasters and to shift blame to states. "It seems that the Katrina federal legacy is one of minimizing exposure for the next event and ensuring future focus is centered on state and local preparedness," he said.

The blunt remarks spotlight a breakdown in joint efforts to fulfill a core recommendation by investigators who examined federal missteps after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in August 2005.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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