A decision by the Bush administration to rewrite in secret the nation's emergency response blueprint has angered state and local emergency officials, who worry that Washington is repeating a series of mistakes that contributed to its bungled response to Hurricane Katrina nearly two years ago.
State and local officials in charge of responding to disasters say that their input in shaping the National Response Plan was ignored in recent months by senior White House and Department of Homeland Security officials, despite calls by congressional investigators for a shared overhaul of disaster planning in the United States.
"In my 19 years in emergency management, I have never experienced a more polarized environment between state and federal government," said Albert Ashwood, Oklahoma's emergency management chief and president of a national association of state emergency managers.
The national plan is supposed to guide how federal, state and local governments, along with private and nonprofit groups, work together during emergencies. Critics contend that a unilateral approach by Washington produced an ill-advised response plan at the end of 2004 -- an unwieldy, 427-page document that emphasized stopping terrorism at the expense of safeguarding against natural disasters.
Bruce Baughman, Ashwood's predecessor as president of the National Emergency Management Association and a 32-year veteran of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said that a draft of the revised plan released to state officials last week marks a step backward because its authors did not set requirements or consult with field operators nationwide who will use it to request federal aid, adjust state and county plans, and train workers.
"Where's the beef?" asked Baughman, who is Alabama's emergency management chief. "I don't have any problems with a framework . . . but it's not a plan . . . and it's not national. Who are we fooling here?"
Last week, DHS circulated to federal and state officials a streamlined, 71-page draft, renamed the "National Response Framework." DHS spokeswoman Laura Keehner said that state and local officials were included earlier in the decision-making process, but that an initial draft they produced with FEMA and DHS preparedness officials in May "did not meet expectations." The initial collaboration resulted in what several federal officials familiar with the process described as a convoluted version that sought to satisfy too many constituencies and re-fought old bureaucratic battles.
The disagreement over the plan comes at a time of increasing mistrust between Washington and state homeland security officials. In recent months, they have sparred over dwindling federal grants, the adequacy of local intelligence-gathering efforts and what states regard as Washington's reluctance to share information about potential threats.
"Coordination between state and local governments and the feds . . . seems to be getting worse rather than better," said Timothy Manning, head of emergency management in New Mexico and a member of a DHS-appointed steering committee that initially worked on the emergency plan before being shut out of the deliberations in May.
Testifying before a House panel last week, Ashwood and colleagues openly questioned why the draft was revised behind closed doors. The final document was to be released June 1, at the start of this year's hurricane season.
Federal officials, Ashwood said, appear to be trying to create a legalistic document to shield themselves from responsibility for future disasters and to shift blame to states. "It seems that the Katrina federal legacy is one of minimizing exposure for the next event and ensuring future focus is centered on state and local preparedness," he said.
The blunt remarks spotlight a breakdown in joint efforts to fulfill a core recommendation by investigators who examined federal missteps after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in August 2005.
In the White House's after- action report in February 2006, President Bush's homeland security adviser, Frances Fragos Townsend, called the National Response Plan overly complicated, Washington-driven and filled with "enough government acronyms and jargon to make your head spin."
"We need to rewrite the National Response Plan so it is workable and it is clear," she said. "We will draw from the expertise at the state and local levels to ensure that we get it right."
The pre-Katrina plan was developed shortly after FEMA was subsumed in the huge new homeland security bureaucracy, a shift that critics later concluded had put new bureaucratic layers between responders and decision makers.
Partly as a result, White House investigators said, senior officials did not anticipate the long-foreseen levee breaches that flooded New Orleans, or activate federal powers to speed the movement of 70,000 troops to the region, or unify chains of command to promptly evacuate the Louisiana Superdome and secure the chaotic city after the hurricane's landfall.
Instead, senior U.S. officials including Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, then five months on the job, implemented the existing federal plan late, ineffectively or not at all, a special Republican-led House panel on the Katrina disaster reported. Conflicting command roles under the plan also contributed to a bitter public feud between Chertoff and Michael D. Brown, who resigned as FEMA director in September 2005 after Chertoff relieved him of his on-site relief duties on the Gulf Coast.
In a statement, Brown said a "Washington knows best" attitude led the nascent DHS to produce a convoluted, out-of-touch plan and to "ram the results down the throats of first responders, mayors and governors" in 2005 before Katrina proved they would not work. "How many times does it take Washington to realize that state and local governments are the first responders and we should rely on their expertise, their knowledge and work with them as partners?" Brown asked.
DHS Deputy Secretary Michael P. Jackson, who is preparing the new draft with Joel Bagnal, the White House deputy assistant for homeland security, said in May that the old plan was "impenetrable" and that a rewrite was necessary so that "people can use it and train to it and understand it at a governor's level, at a mayor's level, at the level of a congressman."
The new draft, which was released publicly only after it was leaked to Congressional Quarterly, states that it is a simplified but "essential playbook" that describes various responsibilities of government executives, private-sector business and nongovernmental leaders and operators. Acknowledging that its directives exceed current capabilities, however, the framework commits the federal government to developing later actual strategic and operational plans.
Bush officials add that state, local and private-sector partners will get their say during a 30-day review when the plan is formally released later this year.
"The draft National Response Plan will be presented to the president after an extensive 30-day review period by federal, state and local officials, and we look forward to receiving the draft plan after that review period," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said.
John R. Harrald, a professor at George Washington University's Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management, cautioned that shutting out state and local voices during the plan's preparation would be ill-advised. He said that the administration appears "to be guided by a desire to ensure centralized control of what is an inherently decentralized process. . . . Response to catastrophic events requires collaboration and trust in a broad network of organizations."
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