- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 3, 2006

Nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, Louisiana and Department of Homeland Security officials remain at odds over who is in charge of evacuations and shelters heading into peak hurricane season.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, who was widely criticized for indecisiveness during the Katrina crisis in September, has been arguing hurricane-response policy with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, whose department was blamed for a failed federal response to last year’s disaster in New Orleans.

Mr. Chertoff has said state officials need to shelter 150,000 residents during a hurricane, about 65,000 more than Mrs. Blanco has said can be accommodated. In a letter to Mr. Chertoff, Mrs. Blanco also said the federal government should be responsible for evacuating hurricane victims still living in federal trailer parks.

While other hurricane-prone states such as Florida, Alabama and Mississippi have emergency plans in place for hurricanes, Louisiana is the only state still negotiating plans with Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In Mississippi, 38,000 FEMA trailers would be evacuated by local officials, said Ashley Roth, spokeswoman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. The state’s “Stay Alert, Stay Alive” program devoted one week to explaining to those living in trailer parks how to evacuate.

“We’re cooking and ready to go,” said Courtney Olivier, spokeswoman for Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

The dispute between Mrs. Blanco and Mr. Chertoff comes as Tropical Storm Chris heads toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Forecasters predict the storm will not reach hurricane strength, but New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said at a press conference Wednesday he is watching the storm’s progress and will go “on serious high alert” if it enters the Gulf.

Drivers are being recruited for any mandatory evacuation and the National Guard is ready to assist city police officers, Mr. Nagin said.

Mrs. Blanco’s argument with federal officials is more about politics than preparedness, said Chad Rogers, publisher of TheDeadPelican.com.

“Her reputation was tarnished by Katrina, and she’s putting on a tough guy act,” Mr. Rogers said. “It’s all about politics. She makes Homeland Security look competent.”

In a letter to Mr. Chertoff, Mrs. Blanco complained: “We have received no indication from you that staffing, logistics and security for additional shelters have been addressed.”

Mr. Chertoff had sent a letter to the governor last month, asking for details about Louisiana’s hurricane-response plans. The letter was intended “to make sure there was no ambiguity whatsoever over the roles and responsibilities, to make it absolutely clear expectations are understood, and the capabilities at all levels are known,” one Homeland Security official said.

A shelter in Baton Rouge that hosted thousands of New Orleans evacuees last year will not be available because of financial restraints, but Mr. Chertoff said all available shelters must be utilized before asking other states to shoulder the burden.

“Since these shelter spaces were available last year, we presume that their absence from this year’s list is a reflection of local preference,” Mr. Chertoff wrote to Mrs. Blanco in mid-July. “I am relying on your assurance that you will use all powers and authorities you have as governor to ensure state and parish governments will provide all available shelter space in Louisiana before we turn to other states for shelter.”

Mark Smith, a spokesman for the governor, said Louisiana authorities are in contract with FEMA and Homeland Security officials on a daily basis to work through the differences.

“We feel it’s 80 percent settled,” Mr. Smith said. “This isn’t completed yet, and it’s something that needs to be completed in a relatively swift manner.”

The federal government has contracts to evacuate 80,000 Louisiana residents by bus, 40,000 by air and 15,000 by rail.

However, Mrs. Blanco objects to using Amtrak and criticized federal officials for bypassing state officials in negotiating the agreement between the rail company and New Orleans. “At this late hour, it is not advisable to include this as a primary means of evacuation,” Mrs. Blanco said.

While Louisiana’s state constitution gives parishes primacy in emergency planning and response, Mrs. Blanco created the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP) as an “independent agency within my office with direct report to me,” she wrote.

She also criticized the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for failing to consult with GOHSEP before coordinating a security plan for the New Orleans Convention Center.

“These types of direct coordination will only serve to confuse the response,” Mrs. Blanco said, and “will result in a disjointed response between the local, state and federal governments.”

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