Ten high-ranking local officials from Northern Virginia left late Tuesday for New Orleans, where they will help officials get the Big Easy back on its feet.
The cadre is working under the auspices of a little-known interstate agreement designed to help localities get through emergencies such as Hurricane Katrina. As soon as the storm hit the Gulf Coast, Northern Virginia localities that are participants in the compact -- Fairfax, Prince William, Loudoun and Arlington counties and the city of Alexandria -- put together a team of 10 senior managers who packed their bags and got ready to assist the disaster-stricken communities if they were called upon.
On Tuesday the call came, and the group left in a caravan of government vehicles that evening. They expected to be at work in New Orleans by 8 a.m. today. Their desks initially will be in City Hall, which has been damaged by the storm and flooding, so a move to another location is almost certain, said members of the regional team, which includes Prince William County Executive Craig S. Gerhart. Most of the team's members are public safety or emergency management specialists. John Mausert-Mooney, a division director in Arlington's Department of Environmental Services, also is part of the team.
"We may have hit upon an unprecedented model that other governments would do well to duplicate," said Gerhart of the interstate assistance agreement overseen by the National Emergency Management Association, based in Lexington, Ky.
The association governs mutual aid and coordinates a nationwide network of local officials ready to help their counterparts in emergencies. The agreement allows communities to send workers, equipment and other forms of assistance without having to worry about whether they will be reimbursed, be responsible for workers' compensation or be liable for accidents. States receiving help can draw on federal disaster relief funds to cover the costs.
"They don't have to worry about those three things when they cross state lines to help," said Trina Hembree Sheets, the association's executive director.
The association is organizing the largest nationwide deployment in its history, Sheets said. So far, 43,000 people from 44 states, including Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, have been sent to the Gulf states to help, Sheets said.
There are also regional agreements among communities in the Washington area that allow local officials to help each other or export their assistance if need be.
"We work together as a team all the time," said Merni Fitzgerald, a spokeswoman for Fairfax County. "If something happens in one of our jurisdictions, we know we can count on the assistance of each other . . . because we have long-standing agreements."
The Northern Virginia group expects to be deployed for 14 days and will help govern the city of New Orleans, Fitzgerald said. "Their government structure is completely destroyed," she said, with so many officials forced from their homes.
The team is among 800 people from Virginia who have been deployed through the association or are on standby, said Bob Spieldenner, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.
The department is working with local governments to match supplies and expertise with the Gulf states' needs, Spieldenner said. "We'll work to make it all happen. What it entails is all the logistics -- where they are going to stay, gas, getting down there, making sure they have supplies to take care of themselves -- or otherwise they can be a drain," he said.
Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William counties have already sent groups and individuals, mostly fire and emergency workers, to the area. But those individuals have operated outside the regional team.
Before the recent disaster, the biggest deployment of emergency help through the compact was last year, when hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne required 800 relief workers from 38 states over 85 days.
Hurricanes have been a driving force of the compact, which had its beginnings in 1992 when several southern states struck an agreement to help each other after Hurricane Andrew hit Florida. The agreement was adopted in 1993 and two years later expanded to other states. Every state except California and Hawaii take part in the compact, Sheets said.
With so many states, counties and cities offering to help, the association helps comb through proposals, looking at such criteria as distance from the disaster, expenses and the expertise the relief workers offer, Sheets said.
The compact generally gives preference to teams of workers rather than individuals, she said. There is less confusion and friction than when individuals from different states try to work together, she said.
The Northern Virginia effort is unique in that the various communities decided to coordinate one team, as opposed to working as individual jurisdictions, Spieldenner said.
Prince William Assistant Fire Chief Kevin McGee said a regional team came naturally. "The jurisdictions have worked very closely together. This has been particularly true since 9/11," he said. "In many ways, we function as if we are one large organization."
The state could end up sending a large number of relief workers over time, considering how long the rebuilding is expected to take. "They are rotating people through. People who have been there two weeks are coming home," Spieldenner said. "It is a pretty stressful environment. People get burned out."
The other members of the Northern Virginia team are Police Capt. John Crawford, Alexandria; Deputy Fire Chief Ben Barksdale and Fire Battalion Chief Randy Gray, Arlington; Office of Emergency Management Deputy Coordinator Bill MacKay and Deputy Fire Chief Mike Wood, Fairfax; Fire-Rescue Assistant Chief Jack Brown, Loudoun; and Police Chief Charlie T. Deane and McGee, Prince William.