Report Finds State and Local Disaster Plans Aren’t Making the Grade
Five years after the September 11 and anthrax tragedies, adequate emergency preparedness at all levels—federal, state, and local—remains catch-as-catch-can, say experts.
A new study reveals that most states are not prepared for a major health crisis such as a pandemic flu outbreak, while speakers at American Military University’s symposium, Homeland Security: The Ripple
Effect, noted that local communities still have major, serious gaps in disaster plans.
Part of the preparedness issue lies in incomplete emergency plans, according to symposium speaker Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, former commander of Joint Task Force-Katrina.
Other conference speakers, who included U.S. House Homeland Security Committee Chair Bennie Thompson and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
Director R. David Paulison, said that many communities remain unprepared to handle evacuees and need to develop partnerships with private industry. Others addressed the necessity of personal preparedness and regional approaches to emergency response and recovery.
James Spears, homeland security advisor and secretary of Military Affairs and Public Safety for West Virginia, discussed preparedness issues for states located near major metropolitan areas.
According to Spears, West Virginia could be left vulnerable should a major emergency occur at a nearby state. For example, if the West Virginia National Guard—an important state resource—was called in to support Washington, D.C.
Concerns voiced by the symposium’s speakers are well-founded, based on a new report that examines state preparedness for major events. The fourth annual report, “Ready or Not? Protecting the Public’s Health from Disease, Disasters, and Bioterrorism,” released by Trust for America’s Health (TFAH), indicates that when local communities that are not ready to handle mass casualties turn to their state governments for help, they might find little additional assistance available.
Part of the problem, says Patrick McCrory, Mayor of Charlotte, NC, and a member of President George W. Bush’s Homeland Security Advisory Council, are the difficulties of gathering information and deploying assistance in the first hours after an emergency occurs.
“Many [people] put unrealistic expectations on government, especially in the first 48 hours,” McCrory says. “That is true at all levels: local, state, and federal.”
To remedy the problem, FEMA Director Paulison says his agency is building partnerships with private industry. Private industry controls much of the nation’s infrastructure—communications, energy, and transportation—so its cooperation is critical. He is also strengthening FEMA, including adding many positions.
However, experts agree that despite increased emphasis on preparedness at the local, state, and federal level, gaps wide enough to drive a truck through continue to exist.
All 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia were evaluated for the TFAH report. Half the states scored 6 or less on the scale of 10 indicators. Oklahoma scored highest with 10 out of 10; California, Iowa, Maryland, and New Jersey scored the lowest with 4 out of 10. States with stronger surge capacity capabilities and immunization programs scored higher, since four of the measures focus on these areas.
“September 11, the anthrax attacks, and Hurricane Katrina were all wake-up calls to the country, putting us on notice that the nation’s response capabilities were weak and that we needed to improve preparedness,” says Jeff Levi, Ph.D., Executive Director of TFAH. “But, across the board, it is clear that we haven’t learned the lessons from these tragedies—we are still too vulnerable to what might come next.”
Key findings of the report include:
–Only 15 states are rated at the highest preparedness level to provide emergency vaccines, antidotes, and medical supplies from the Strategic National Stockpile.
–25 states would run out of hospital beds within two weeks of a moderate pandemic flu outbreak.
–40 states face a shortage of nurses.
–Rates for vaccinating seniors for the seasonal flu decreased in 13 states.
–11 states and Washington, D.C., lack sufficient capabilities to test for biological threats.
— 4 states do not test year-round for the flu, which is necessary to monitor for a pandemic outbreak.
–6 states cut their public health budgets from FY2005 to FY2006; the median rate for state public health spending is $31 per person per year.
Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to saving lives by protecting the health of every community. For more information or to download the complete report, visit: www.govinfo.bz/6777-116.