Mayors meet to discuss readiness

O'Malley critical of Homeland Security funding

survey says city is well-funded

July 27, 2006|By DOUG DONOVAN | DOUG DONOVAN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Nearly five years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a year after Hurricane Katrina, a majority of American cities believe the federal government is failing to help them prepare for disasters, a new survey shows.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley joined five other mayors yesterday at the National Press Club here to discuss the findings of a survey of 183 cities conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

"[Department of Homeland Security] funding to states and cities has steadily decreased," O'Malley said. "We're expecting a $1.6 million decrease this year."

Although most cities appear to be flying solo on disaster planning, Baltimore's answers in the survey show that it has fared somewhat better than most when it comes to federal assistance for disaster planning, especially with building communication networks.

According to the survey, 77 percent of cities with populations over 300,000 claimed the federal government has not given them sufficient resources to establish radio networks that enable various emergency agencies in the same region to communicate with one another.

Baltimore was among the 23 percent of big cities that said the U.S. government has provided adequate funding for such a network. However, Baltimore attained that status only by aggressively beating out dozens of other cities for a $5 million federal grant in 2003 to build its shared communications system, O'Malley aides said.

In addition, most big cities - 70 percent - do not have plans to receive disaster assistance from nearby military bases. Baltimore, however, does have such a plan with the Coast Guard.

Also, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has assigned an official to assist Baltimore in the case of an emergency. Most smaller towns have no such contact, while 60 percent of the big cities do.

But Baltimore officials find little comfort in that because their FEMA point person is also responsible for cities in eight other states. In fact, on a scale of 1 to 10, O'Malley gave FEMA a "2" on whether he believed the agency would respond quickly to a Baltimore disaster.

Baltimore did agree with the vast majority of cities that said they would be on their own in the first days and weeks of a pandemic flu outbreak. But the mayor said the state has provided the city with its draft plan for such a health crisis.

The mayor, as co-chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' homeland security task force, has gained national attention by attacking the federal government for not giving cities enough disaster support. The mayor's Republican critics said Baltimore's survey answers undermine that criticism.

"He's clearly a phony," said Maryland GOP spokeswoman Audra Miller. "He likes to talk tough and blame everyone for everything in the sky. But by his own admission, he is receiving sufficient federal resources."

O'Malley supporters said his criticism has always centered on the federal government's support of all cities, not just Baltimore, and that the survey supports him.

Trenton, N.J., Mayor Douglas H. Palmer, a Democrat, commended O'Malley for getting other mayors to begin discussions on forging mutual aid agreements between their cities.

"We can either lead, follow or get out of the way," Palmer said. "As mayors, we're saying we're going to lead."

doug.donovan@baltsun.com

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