New Orleans Looks for Professional Team to Help with Disasters

August 19, 2008

City officials hope to soon hire an experienced disaster management team to help handle a major hurricane, should one threaten or strike this year.

It’s an unusual step considering this hurricane season is already nearly three months old, and it shows signs the city and its residents may not be as prepared as they could be some three years after Hurricane Katrina flooded most of New Orleans. Besides needing more emergency management staff for a major crisis, less than one-third of the estimated 30,000 residents who will need the city’s help evacuating before a storm have signed up for that assistance.

Ret. Lt. Col. Jerry Sneed, the city’s emergency preparedness director, said selection of a contract team that would be on standby could be made within a week. A request for bids closes this week, and Sneed said he’ll be careful with taxpayer’s money but will value skill over bargain.

The city has seven emergency management staff, more than before Katrina hit but “still not enough to really adequately run things,” Sneed said. The team on contract would answer to Sneed and provide additional planning and logistics help that would give his staff some reprieve while still running a 24-7 operation, he said.

The city had a similar arrangement in place last year, lining up about seven workers, but the contract was never initiated, Sneed said. This year, the city is looking for up to 20 people with key positions calling for between three and seven years of experience.

Hurricane season began June 1. But Sneed said it took time to put solicitations together and he wanted the request for proposals “to go out right.”

The city opted to go this route so that if the need for help arose, it would not be “held over a barrel” by costs for the emergency services, he said.

Allison Hadley Morgan, a spokeswoman for Louisiana’s emergency preparedness office, said she thinks it’s a good idea for parishes to line up all the resources they can before a storm or other disaster hits.

A readiness mind-set is something the state and city are trying to get residents into as well. Even with Katrina still fresh in people’s minds — vast swaths of hard-hit neighborhoods remain in ruins and yellow-brown water lines still stain some buildings in New Orleans — emergency management officials are worried about people heeding calls to leave, if those calls come.

The state has tried to get that message across using more than standard pamphlets: it’s called on the band Better Than Ezra and Louisiana State football coach Les Miles for PSAs, for example.

The city has not been under a major storm threat since Katrina hit Aug. 29, 2005. Current plans would have Mayor Ray Nagin call for a mandatory evacuation with a Category 3 or higher approaching.

Only about 7,000 of the estimated 30,000 people who would need the city’s help evacuating have signed up to catch rides on buses or trains, Sneed said. The city has reached out to churches and has a hot line, which has been criticized by some as being inefficient, to get people signed up, Sneed said.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘I’ve got a generator, I’m good.’ But those people need to remember, if they don’t heed the mayor’s warning to leave, they take it upon themselves to accept all responsibility for themselves and their loved ones,” he said.

Sneed also worries residents may be lulled into a “false sense of safety” by staying on the Westbank, which emerged from Katrina relatively unscathed. Sneed said the Westbank is “probably more vulnerable to storm surge” than other places in the city because of the level of levee and flood protection improvements to date.

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