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Gaps Exist in U.S. City Emergency Plans


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I consider detailed emergency planning to be a national security priority. And, therefore, I've ordered the Department of Homeland Security to undertake an immediate review.

MONTAGNE: President Bush ordered that review of emergency plans in every major city after Hurricane Katrina. Nine months later, the review is done, and it could be released this week. And those involved say it will find many gaps in planning for the next big disaster.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

A lot of this exercise was just to find out what's out there, to get some idea how prepared cities and states are to deal with a catastrophic event like a major earthquake, hurricane, or terrorist attack. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff admitted last week that the review has found some serious gaps.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Secretary, Department of Homeland Security): We've taken a pretty candid look at the state of preparedness and it's uneven - good in some places, not so good in others.

FESSLER: The problems will come as no surprise - things like communications, sheltering, evacuations. Earlier this year, only 22 states said their emergency plans were adequate to deal with a catastrophic disaster. Only six states thought their evacuation plans were adequate, and less than a third of cities said that their plans could handle a huge disaster.

Ms. HILARY STYRON (National Organization on Disability): If nothing else comes out of this national plan review, it'll be, what's the baseline? Where are we?

FESSLER: Hilary Styron is with the National Organization on Disability. Her group participated in the review and looked at plans to help people with special needs.

Ms. STYRON: We found deficiencies across the country and problems with transportation planning, mass sheltering, communication, notification for people with disabilities. If you took the average of the states and the cities that we evaluated, we'd be looking at maybe a C or even a C minus.

FESSLER: She says lots of emergency managers are just starting to think about how to deal with people who can't move themselves in a disaster or who need medication just to stay alive.

Barbara Childs-Pair is emergency management director for the District of Columbia. She says even before the Bush administration review, she knew this area needed more work.

Ms. BARBARA CHILDS-PAIR (Emergency Management Director, District of Columbia): Those nursing home facilities, those hospitals that may need to be evacuated, those are the special needs populations that we need to close some gaps on. And we're working diligently to do that.

FESSLER: She says the city is looking into special equipment and vehicles needed to transport those who are ill or immobile, and making sure that emergency staffers can communicate with the hearing impaired and others who might not understand directions during a disaster.

Childs-Pair says the city is also looking at stockpiling more emergency supplies, like generators and meals ready to eat.

Ms. CHILDS-PAIR: Pretty much, I'm sure as any other jurisdiction feels, that if we had a catastrophic event, we're going to be overwhelmed pretty quickly.

FESSLER: And that's one think this review has helped to drive home, says Eric Holdeman. He's emergency management director for King County in Washington State. Holdeman says a lot has been done to plan for disasters, but not necessarily the really big ones.

Mr. ERIC HOLDEMAN (Emergency Management Director, King County, Washington State): There is somewhat an aversion to doing worst-case planning, because it can be so catastrophic you get an attitude from people and agencies who should be doing planning. Well, if it's that bad, there's nothing we can do.

FESSLER: But Holdeman says Katrina showed that that attitude is no longer an option. He says reviewers who came to his county recommended more rigorous exercises.

Michael Cline is Virginia's emergency management coordinator. He says his state identified a need for better communications, so one emergency operations center can talk to another. It also looked at what would be needed if residents are scattered across the country like the victims of Katrina.

Mr. MICHAEL CLINE (Emergency Management Coordinator, Virginia): Mechanisms for tracking people if they left the state. Mechanisms for making sure that we could get access to the federal information to help those victims for the long term - those things are areas that we still need to work on.

FESSLER: And like other emergency managers, Cline hopes this review means more federal assistance down the road, especially the financial kind. Secretary Chertoff didn't promise any more money, but he did say that the federal government will now work with states and cities to help improve their preparedness plans.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.