Saturday, October 27, 2007

New Orleans storm readiness shortfalls kept secret

New Orleans Times-Picayune: The state of Louisiana and the Bush administration are refusing to disclose analyses that would let the public know where gaps exist in the government's hurricane preparation and response plans, including evacuation, medical services and shelters.

Citing national security concerns, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has refused to turn over "gap analyses" conducted on 18 coastal states, from Maine to Texas, that are susceptible to hurricanes. FEMA officials say that because the reviews discuss "critical infrastructure," they are not available to the public under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Louisiana emergency preparedness officials first referred questions to FEMA and then declined to provide further information about ongoing problems in planning for hurricanes."This is a FEMA project," said Mark Smith, spokesman for the Louisiana Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Response.

The Times-Picayune first asked for the gap analyses in June after FEMA Director David Paulison announced at the start of the 2007 hurricane season that the state-by-state reviews were part of the agency's new approach to ensuring disaster readiness.

After the much-maligned federal, state and local responses to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, FEMA decided to review "core readiness capabilities" in six major areas: evacuation, medical services, debris removal, commodities, sheltering and fuel. Modeled after an assessment developed by New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, FEMA asked coastal states to identify gaps in their preparedness and to ask the federal government for help in advance.

Paulison has mentioned the "Gap Analysis Initiative" at news conferences and in congressional testimony since the process was launched in March. But his agency has refused to provide specifics. "FEMA agreed with the states not to release this data due to the potential release of critical infrastructure data," James McIntyre, a spokesman for the agency, said. "In addition, we find the data to be of a sensitive nature that could be misused if widely available."…

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