Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A mock hurricane exercise in Louisiana was abruptly canceled in the middle of the drill when local and federal officials disagreed over who was in charge of evacuating the largest federally operated trailer park of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita evacuees near Baton Rouge.

The planned two-day drill that began Tuesday included the Renaissance Village trailer park in Baker, La., and the evacuation of 1,500 residents living in 500 travel trailers owned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“The state and FEMA could not agree on who makes the evacuation call when we needed it,” said Danny Edwards, Baker fire chief.

State and FEMA officials say the confusion during the practice drill arose over whether East Baton Rouge Parish had the authority to evacuate a federal facility, including trailer parks operated by FEMA.

“If you want to know what happened in Katrina, you just saw it,” said one first responder participating in the drill.

“First responders were in place, but then there was a bureaucratic breakdown,” the first responder said. “It’s kind of sad. It would have been nice to go ahead with that part of the drill to test the challenges we’ll face.”

Had this not been a drill, Chief Edwards said, he would not have hesitated to warn the residents, who are without cable television or land-line telephone service, to evacuate immediately.

“If we’ve got a hurricane breathing down our necks, we won’t wait. We learned a lot from Katrina and we won’t delay; we’ll do what we’re trained to do.” Chief Edwards said.

At FEMA’s request, first responders later Tuesday used a public address system to warn residents of the trailer park of the approaching mock “Hurricane Alicia,” a Category 3 storm.

Evacuees living in 70,000 of the camp trailers in Louisiana and 40,000 in Mississippi are a major concern to Homeland Security officials, who say those residents must be evacuated immediately if a storm approaches because the shelters cannot withstand hurricanes or tornadoes.

Federal and state officials told reporters yesterday at the Baton Rouge Emergency Operations Center that they had met to work out the differences and that local parishes are now clear that they have the authority to call for the evacuation.

“These exercises are designed to show gaps, and yesterday one such gap was exposed during a major event,” said Col. Jeff Smith, acting director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. “We are pleased to have closed that gap and resolved it. The parish has the right to call for the evacuation of any FEMA trailer park.”

One FEMA official who spoke on background early yesterday said an evacuation is always a decision by local officials that is carried out by state officials.

“This is exactly why we do these exercises, why it’s so important that we do these things in a real-world scenario, because it gives us the ability to visually and operationally see where the disconnect is so we can correct it before an actual emergency,” the FEMA official said.

JoAnne Moreau, director of the East Baton Rouge Parish Office of Emergency Preparedness, complained about the federal and state response Tuesday and told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “We were unable to get any information from the state or federal government on what policies or procedures were for evacuating those sites.”

During the press briefing on the drill’s conclusion yesterday, she said, “The issue is not that we are not effective, but how effective we can be.”

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