Report Warns of Gaps in Louisiana Emergency Plans, Officials Skeptical

May 7, 2009

Hurricane season is just weeks away, but many south Louisiana parishes cannot show their disaster plans cover evacuation of at-risk populations such as the disabled, the homeless and the elderly, according to the Disaster Accountability Project, a student-led watchdog group.

The Connecticut-based group said it found gaps in planning by local officials in charge of working with the state to move more than 1 million people out of the coastal danger zone if a hurricane threatens.

The group also said many disaster managers were unwilling to allow inspection of their plans. Of the 22 parishes surveyed, 11 either refused to disclose their plans or did not respond to surveyors when contacted earlier this year, the report said. Only four of the 22 parishes had their plans available online when the surveyors checked.

Among the results released May 5, the survey found that only two parishes fully accounted for how they would evacuate day-care facilities; none had plans for evacuating the homeless; and six fully accounted for how they should evacuate the elderly. The 22 parishes were chosen by their proximity to the coast.

“I’m not sure what’s worse, the failure of numerous parishes to provide their emergency plans upon request, that some parish plans were dated before Hurricane Katrina, or a combination of the two,” said Ben Smilowitz, the group’s executive director.

Several emergency management officials were skeptical of the report.

“How are law students qualified to evaluate emergency management?” said Deano Bonano, head of the Jefferson Parish homeland security office. “My concern is that they might cause fear among Jefferson Parish citizens. It’s not a legitimate or a Louisiana-based group. What are their qualifications to comment on hurricane plans?”

The surveyors, drawn from law schools across the country, sought to identify if the plans covered 23 areas of interest – from evacuation plans for vulnerable slices of the population to public outreach. The students did not have specific training in emergency planning, but DAP said every local government should be able to provide a clear and easy to understand plan to citizens.

A disaster planning expert not involved in the DAP survey agreed that an emergency plan should be easy for anyone to understand.

“There are certain sections of the plans that should be highly technical, maybe the communications and hazardous materials sections,” said Jay Wilson, the executive director of the Disaster Emergency Response Association International, based in Longmont, Colo. “But in general the plans should be understandable by anyone in the community.”

The report gave Jefferson’s emergency plans a mediocre review because it said the parish did not specify how schools, day care centers, the homeless and tourists would be evacuated. With more than 430,000 residents in the congested New Orleans suburbs, Jefferson is Louisiana’s most populous parish.

Bonano said the parish has an exemplary evacuation system. “The mere fact they couldn’t find it in our plans does not mean it does not exist.”

New Orleans, devastated by Katrina in August 2005, declined to provide its plans in March when DAP surveyors asked for a detailed examination.

Thomas Ignelzi, the city’s chief emergency planner, said the survey was of “limited value” because the students “didn’t know much about emergency planning.”

In a preliminary review in January, DAP said the plan failed to account for evacuating day-care facilities and schools. Ignelzi said day-care facilities have their own evacuation plans and evacuating schools is moot during a hurricane because they would be closed.

Ignelzi acknowledged some procedures need improvement. For instance, when Hurricane Gustav approached New Orleans in September 2008 there were only 189 seats on minibuses for 2,000 disabled people, he said. “We had to run those vehicles back and forth,” he said.

Jason Tastet, acting director of emergency preparedness in St. Charles Parish, said Louisiana has a good evacuation record because residents and officials are accustomed to leaving.

“A lot of places have done a good job, but they may not have been formulated into plans everywhere. I just don’t think everybody has it on paper,” Tastet said.

The DAP report gave St. Charles good marks overall, but found it lacking details on evacuating homeless people.

“We have a very, very low (number), if any, homeless people here,” Tastet said.

Mark Riley, deputy director of the governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, declined to comment on the report because he was “not aware of the experience or expertise of the Disaster Accountability Project.” The governor’s office oversees disaster planning and evacuations.

State emergency director Mark Cooper said Gustav, which forced about 2 million people to leave their homes, demonstrated state and local authorities can work together to oversee efficient evacuations.

“There have been monumental improvements in the preparedness of coastal Louisiana,” Cooper said.

Smilowitz said the group plans to eventually expand beyond hurricanes, looking, for example, at earthquake planning in the West. Preliminary work in Mississippi has shown gaps in disaster plans there, too, he said.

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