Agencies Test Disaster Readiness in New Orleans

April 10, 2008

With hurricane season approaching, military, state and local agencies tested their emergency readiness and found what one official described as a need to keep practicing to ensure a higher level of comfort with the equipment.

While it wasn’t the first drill since Hurricane Katrina devastated parts of south Louisiana in August 2005, it did include technology and capabilities the agencies did not have at their disposal then, including satellites to fill in if cell and landline service goes down and a mobile unit meant to provide current information to decision-makers on the ground.

Use of different frequencies and other communications problems complicated relief efforts among federal, state and local agencies after Katrina left much of New Orleans under water and virtually wiped out neighboring St. Bernard Parish.

“It was an excellent exercise, one of the best I’ve seen,” said Capt. Rob Billings, a joint operations officer with the Louisiana National Guard.

The Guard led the drill, which was meant to test the disaster response plan in place and to show those involved any areas that need improving.

Billings said all of the major objectives were met and that the communications and other systems worked. “But, now, it’s getting to use them,” he said.

“Any time you have something more complicated, you just need more experience, more practice,” he said. More exercises have been proposed, as a result of the drill, but Billings stressed that today, the agencies involved “could respond very well” and have any remaining issues worked out within six hours — and without any notice from average citizens.

The goal is to move from what had been a “chaotic” situation in the days immediately following Katrina, when authorities were sometimes unable to talk among each other, to “a more seamless response,” U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Scott Bordelon said. He was in a tent with communications equipment he said could be loaded onto a vehicle that can make it through higher water the mobile operations unit, a trailer that resembles a TV satellite truck, and be set up in hard-hit areas in need.

The exercise was meant to simulate the readiness for and response to a Category 3 hurricane making landfall. Work began Tuesday; on Saturday, activities at New Orleans Lakefront Airport, which is along Lake Pontchartrain, included search and rescue drills on the water and from the air. Still-damaged buildings at the airport added to the “realism” of the event, a Guard spokesman, Maj. Mike Kazmierzak, said.

A state-led drill is planned next month, Brig. Gen. Glenn Curtis said.

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