Disaster may hold lessons back home

Emergencies: State and local agencies, already experienced in drills, will learn from the response to the Gulf Coast storm.

Katrina's Wake

September 03, 2005|By Greg Barrett | Greg Barrett,SUN STAFF

As Gulf Coast residents fled the path of Hurricane Katrina last weekend, the Baltimore mayor's office dispatched an e-mail to key security aides. "Please follow events in New Orleans over the next 48 hours as a real life case study in evacuation and emergency management," it read.

At the time, probably none of the 20 public officials expected they would still be taking notes one week later - and would likely be studying Katrina and its effects in the weeks and months ahead.

"Something the size of Katrina will have hundreds of lessons," said John W. Droneburg III, the Maryland Emergency Management Agency director. "What is it like when you lose all of your infrastructure and all of your resources? ... We've seen that a natural disaster can create just as much devastation as terrorists."

Such events help security officials hone their disaster plans. This summer, when London was rocked by bus and subway bombers, Baltimore immediately activated its state-of-the-art Watch Center with its bank of TVs and citywide closed-circuit cameras to monitor the subway and light-rail system. The system also allows police to monitor traffic flow and, if necessary, identify looters.

February drill

The Baltimore region had drilled in February for a similar event. Modeled after last year's Madrid bombings, Operation Designated Hitter prepared first responders regionally for a light-rail explosion in front of Camden Yards.

"It gave me a little bit of reassurance on a horrible day that at least this is something we've worked on," said Andrew Lauland, homeland security adviser to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. "You game-plan for those scenarios ... and you just prepare as best as you can."

In the aftermath of a Category 4 storm, even the rescue of a llama makes sense - an actual homeland security drill here earlier this year to train veterinarians to rescue large animals like llamas and horses.

After Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, the nation's four Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams - including Maryland's - were dispatched to the region as part of the Department of Homeland Security's National Disaster Medical System.

"Not only to rescue horses and other animals," Droneburg said, "but to control animals and do rescue and containment just so rescuers can safely get to the people who need help."

Can't do it alone

The crisis in New Orleans illustrates what state and city officials long suspected: "You cannot handle an event like this with only local resources," Lauland said. "No way New Orleans could plan to respond to this on its own."

It's why homeland security exercises in Maryland have a regional reach and the training applies equally to cataclysmic natural disasters, he said. In dozens of drills funded with federal homeland security grants, coordination between city departments and other agencies and governments has been rehearsed in real-time doomsday scenarios.

Exercises with military-sounding names such as Operation Down Under, Operation Designated Hitter and Harbor BASE have simulated terrorist events requiring unprecedented coordination and planning. For example, in last year's second annual Harbor Biological Attack Simulated Exercise, 22 Maryland agencies or jurisdictions came together to respond to a mock exposure to anthrax.

Harbor BASE drills include fake patients showing up at city hospitals unannounced and the swift establishment of emergency vaccination centers, medical clinics, quarantines and triage units. Medicine - or Skittles, for the purposes of the drill - is retrieved and dispensed. Meanwhile, the city's security Cabinet and various incident command centers for police, fire and public health are tested for communication and collaboration.

`Translatable' system

"This whole command structure did not exist before 9/11 - and it is totally translatable to a natural disaster," said Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's former health commissioner who resigned to run for Congress. "Everyone has [similar] radios now and is on the same frequency, with interoperability."

Lauland, a native of New Orleans, said he wasn't going to "Monday-morning quarterback" the crisis in his hometown, but he was surprised that the area in and around the New Orleans Superdome had been allowed to lapse into lawlessness. In every Maryland drill, incident command and control is an immediate priority.

"Without being down there, it is very hard to know what the conditions were," he said.

Baltimore's security Cabinet - formed after 9/11 with the mayor's office and department heads from police, fire, housing, health, public works, transportation, finance, education and water and utilities - meets regularly and is well-versed on incident command structure and familiar with their regional counterparts.

"Everybody knows each other now. We have trained together and worked together and we have systems that work together," Lauland said. "It's not like knocking on your neighbor's door the first time you need them."

Droneburg said this sort of joint training became a priority for all of the state's first responders after the U.S. terrorism attacks. "Before 9/11, we weren't organized as partners nearly as tight as we are today," he said.

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