Emergency communications still a problem four years after 9/11

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - The head of the agency coordinating disaster relief from Hurricane Katrina didn't learn about the many thousands of refugees gathered outside the New Orleans Convention Center from his own emergency people on the ground.

He heard about it from news reports.

The admission from Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown raises questions about how much progress has been made since the Sept. 11 attacks, which exposed major gaps in communications among federal, state and local officials.

The need for better communication was one of the critical lessons of the attacks on the World Trade Center, when police and firefighters weren't able to talk to each other.

Yet Brown acknowledged in several TV interviews Friday that he only learned about the desperate situation at the convention center through media reports. Thousands of people, sent there by police, had no food, water or medicine.

''We were just as surprised as everybody else. We didn't know that the city had used that as a staging area,'' Brown said.

He blamed the difficulties of delivering emergency assistance on ''the total lack of communications, the inability to hear and have good intelligence on the ground about what was actually occurring there.''

As part of the Sept. 11 reforms, the government developed a national response plan that gives the Department of Homeland Security the authority to synchronize all federal assistance when local and state authorities can no longer manage an emergency on their own.

John Harrald, director of George Washington University's Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management, said federal agencies may be talking to each other, but communications haven't been coordinated with state and local officials.

''This event clearly overwhelmed both our capacities and our capabilities,'' he said.

Back in Washington, lawmakers said they would hold a hearing Wednesday to look into the federal response to Katrina and emergency preparedness in general.

''While it is too early to reach conclusions on the response of government to this catastrophe, it is increasingly clear that serious shortcomings in preparedness and response have hampered relief efforts,'' said Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and the ranking Democrat, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

Experts in disaster response say it's clear that a unified command is not yet in place.

''There are just massive coordination problems,'' said Kathleen Tierney, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Tierney said the response effort is being hampered by the damaged or destroyed infrastructure in hard-hit Gulf Coast areas. The phone system has been crippled and there's no electricity to recharge cell batteries for people who do have service.

''It's a series of cascading failures that are just having things go from bad to worse.''

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