September 16, 2005

L.A. emergency chiefs outline their preparedness stance
Officials tell congressional panel about plan to improve disaster management and coordinate with other cities.

By Toby Eckert
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- Emergency management officials from Los Angeles told members of Congress on Thursday that adequate federal funding and close local coordination are essential for cities hoping to avoid New Orleans' fate should a natural disaster hit their streets.

"We have been very aggressive in preparing for disasters because we must," Los Angeles County emergency management chief Constance Perett told the House Government Reform Committee, noting that the sprawling county had more federal disaster declarations in the 1990s than any other locale.

Ellis M. Stanley Sr., who heads Los Angeles' Emergency Management Department, said the city will conduct a thorough assessment "that will allow us to develop a clear road map for enhancing our current emergency management plan."

Both officials stressed efforts to coordinate the region's disaster plans through the California Standardized Emergency Management System, which provides a statewide model for how jurisdictions respond to a major earthquake, wildfire or other disaster.

Under the system, the county coordinates emergency response, as well as planning, training and exercises, with 88 cities and the state. Nonprofit organizations and utilities are also involved.

The county's Emergency Operations Center is equipped with technology that allows officials to communicate directly with all 88 cities, the Governor's Office of Emergency Services, county departments, Red Cross chapters, school districts and other agencies.

That allows the county to quickly pinpoint areas of damage and identify where aid is needed, Perett said.

"We swear by it," she said of the state system. "If I were to pick one aspect of emergency preparedness that was the most critical, it would be the coordination of plans before disasters and the coordination of response and recovery plans after disasters."

Stanley said city officials also "have a regular meeting of the minds" with their counterparts in other major cities, including New York and Chicago, to share information and advice.

Perett told the committee that more funding was needed for federal grants that help local agencies prepare for disasters. She also endorsed the idea of removing the Federal Emergency Management Agency from the Department of Homeland Security and re-establishing it as an independent, Cabinet-level agency.

"It's way too important to be buried in a larger organization," she said.

FEMA's response to Katrina has been fiercely criticized. Some experts say the agency has been too focused on terrorism since joining the Homeland Security Department.

The House hearing was part of a growing congressional review of the Gulf Coast disaster. It exposed a deep political divide between Republicans and Democrats over the federal government's role in disaster response.

Many Republicans on the committee said state and local governments need to take the lead role, and should take most of the blame for the Katrina aftermath.

"The main lesson learned is that our government doesn't work well when it is a top-down situation," said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga.

But Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., said, "The overarching responsibility for these types of disasters really comes from the federal government."

Some Democrats said the hearing should have focused on what they portrayed as a bungled federal response to Katrina rather than on what other cities are doing to prepare for disasters.

"We prefer to talk around it, which is exactly why it happened," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio.

Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., said members of the panel would be part of a congressional delegation that will travel to areas affected by Katrina and that Thursday's hearing was only the beginning of the committee's work.

"This review (of other cities' plans) serves two purposes: It can help make sure others are better prepared and it can guide and inform the subsequent work we'll be doing specific to Katrina," he said.