Mayors eager to aid hurricane victims

O'Malley, others hope to avoid bureaucracy, provide direct assistance

Katrina's Wake

September 03, 2005|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Frustrated by the federal government's response to the crisis in New Orleans, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and the leaders of at least several other big cities are taking it upon themselves to bypass bureaucratic hurdles and directly assist victims of Hurricane Katrina.

O'Malley said yesterday that city officials will also need to rethink their emergency plans, assuming a slower response time from the National Guard and other federal agencies.

"Having the National Guard here in 48 hours is not a planning reality any more," said O'Malley, a homeland security expert for the U.S. Conference of Mayors. "We make a new assumption now that they won't be here from seven to 10 days."

Cities such as Philadelphia and Washington are making plans to take in refugees from the crisis, even sending buses down to pick people up from shelters.

O'Malley arranged to send 2,000 gallons from the city's bottled water supply with an Annapolis-based company, Diplomat Freight Service, that is flying to Baton Rouge, La., tomorrow and Monday. He also marshaled the resources of three companies to send food and water on the same trip.

But the city's team of trained emergency responders and their stocked emergency-response convoy have been waiting to ship out to the gulf region since Baltimore Fire Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. alerted federal and state emergency management officials on Monday of their readiness. City police are also expected to send 20 to 30 officers and a tactical vehicle.

The Department of Homeland Security has told local fire and emergency service departments across the nation "not to respond to counties and states affected by Hurricane Katrina without being requested and lawfully dispatched by state and local authorities under mutual aid agreements and the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC)," according to a department memo released Monday.

Congress established EMAC in 1996 to provide assistance that "may be more readily available than other resources" and to allow for "a quick response to disasters," according to the compact's Web site. The system allows states to offer other states assistance in a legally binding contract that guarantees liability protection for emergency personnel and a reimbursement process.

The Homeland Security Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have alerted local agencies that "self-dispatching" volunteers could complicate the response and recovery efforts.

Maryland Homeland Security Director Dennis Schrader said that the state has sent some National Guard units to the area and that Montgomery County deployed its federally approved search and rescue team on Monday. Yesterday the team was making rescues in Waveland, Miss., considered ground zero of the hurricane's damage, according to Montgomery County officials.

"It's not about who's in first," Schrader said. "It's about how we sustain this over the next several months."

Schrader said he encouraged direct engagement with the Gulf Coast area by local jurisdictions, but only if the Maryland Emergency Management Agency is told of such efforts.

The mayor said he was hoping that a direct request for assistance from another mayor would allow Baltimore to find a "backdoor" to the federal government's emergency-response bureaucracy.

Baltimore's deputy mayors were talking with the mayor of Prichard, Ala., and with the chief of staff for Louisiana's lieutenant governor, but no such deals had been made, said an O'Malley spokesman. Maryland officials had not been informed of the conversations.

O'Malley was joined in the back-door effort yesterday by other mayors.

"I have been outraged and horrified at the level of response to this national disaster," Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said at a news conference yesterday. "I believe the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the White House ... have failed us and failed us miserably."

Philadelphia Mayor John Street was also offering his city's assistance.

"It's abundantly clear that we cannot take help to the people," Street said at a news conference. "We have to bring people to the help."

Franklin, Street and Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams opened their cities to evacuees heading north.

"We're taking matters into our own hands," said Vince Morris, a spokesman for Williams. "We're not sure what FEMA is doing. They're trying to do something, but it's clearly not fast enough."

Last night, Washington was sending 10 buses to the gulf region to pick up 400 people, drive them back to Washington and house them at the D.C. Armory, Morris said.

Philadelphia will take in 1,000 families displaced by Hurricane Katrina, according to a Street spokeswoman.

Atlanta is feeding approximately 300 people at a shelter and was expecting more people yesterday and today, according to Catherine Woodling, a spokeswoman for Atlanta's mayor.

Baltimore has not announced any specific plans to take in refugees, though state education officials have indicated that many local school systems have expressed willingness to do so.

Dana Bykowski, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said her group's members were ready to move.

"They're just awaiting the call," she said.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan was also planning to receive refugees from the hurricane this weekend. In addition to the rescue team already in Mississippi, his county was set to send its second team once the federal government activates it.

But Duncan, who is likely to run against O'Malley for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination next year, said elected leaders should not spend time criticizing the federal government until the crisis is alleviated.

"President Bush said the federal response is unacceptable, and I agree," Duncan said. "Now is not the time to play armchair quarterback. We need to provide all the help we can. When it's taken care of, a year later, that's when we can do the critique."

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