Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Qualified for the Job?

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (and FEMA's allegedly slow response), now-departed agency director Michael Brown was criticized for his skimpy resume, and meager qualifications for running a major government organization. While Brown has a law degree (albeit from a second-rate, marginally-credentialed school, Oklahoma City University), he has only limited experience as an attorney. And there is absolutely nothing to indicate any past experience in disaster planning, response coordination or emergency management--required skills for a FEMA director.

Does this lack of experience and expertise extend to others in the response chain? I'll skip the political hacks like Kathleen Blanco and Ray Nagin, whose staggering incompetence made a dire situation even worse. What about the local managers who were supposed to coordinate the initial response. Did they have the requisite qualifications for their jobs, and did their lack of experience contribute to post-Katrina debacle?

Starting at ground zero, we're already familiar with the collapse of the New Orleans Police Department after the storm. By some accounts, at least one-quarter to one-third of the police force was AWOL after the storm, creating an environment that facilitated wide-spread looting and lawlessness. Some of the cops who stayed on the job even joined in, pilfering items from ransacked stores in the city. The honest officers who stayed on the job were largely isolated and nearly powerless, unable to rescue stranded residents, or control the city's few dry streets.

Coordinating the city's response to the disaster was the responsibility of the New Orleans Department of Homeland Security and its Director, Colonel Terry Ebbert. Colonel Ebbert is a retired Marine officer and decorated combat veteran; as a young lieutenant in Vietnam, Ebbert won the Navy Cross--the nation's second-highest award for valor--for heroism under fire.

But as director of an agency coordinating first responders, Colonel Ebbert's resume has some glaring holes. While he has extensive security experience in the military and private sectors, he (apparently) has little background in disaster management or engineering, seemingly desirable skills in a homeland security director for a city prone to natural disasters.

I've found a brief synopsis of Ebbert's resume on-line, in a program for a homeland security conference held in New Orleans last fall. It certainly looks impressive. According to that document, Ebbert served as Director of the New Orleans Police Foundation prior to assuming the homeland security post in 2003. Before that, Ebbert worked as chief of security for a firm that provides helicopter support for off-shore oil platforms.

During his Marine Corps career, Colonel Ebbert held a variety of staff and security appointments, including Commander of the USMC Basic School, Director of Ground Officer Assignments, and Executive Officer to the Marine Corps Commandant. While those are high-level posts, they apparently provided little or no experience in disaster preparedness, planning or emergency response, critical duties for a city homeland security director.

Despite these shortfalls, Ebbert was hired as the city's homeland security chief in the Fall of 2003. In an interview with Security Management On-Line, Ebbert noted his operational control of New Orleans's police and fire departments, as well as the city's emergency preparedness agency. Shortly after taking office, he centralized planning for the departments and began fielding a high-tech Public Safety Wireless Network (PWSN). Ebbert claimed that the system allowed "all agencies to talk on their own radios, regardless of brand or bandwidth." This network apparently failed miserably during Hurricane Katrina; a number of police officers and firemen told reporters that they "couldn't communicate with anyone," complicating response efforts.

Ebbert also bragged about detailed hurricane planning efforts under his watch:

"We had already established good working relationships for hurricane evacuation planning, even down to hospitals and nursing homes, those types of agencies where we have to evacuate people," he says, "and we're now piggybacking on those relationships."

Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, someone needs to ask Colonel Ebbert about those relationships, and why they failed so miserably during the storm. Forty dead bodies found floating in a New Orleans hospital suggest that those "working relationships" were either greatly exaggerated, or city officials--including Ebbert--simply failed to follow their own plans.

In a city like New Orleans--where major hurricanes are an inevitable threat-- questions should be raised about Ebbert's apparent lack of training and experience in such areas as disaster preparedness and engineering. While his background seems suited for some types of homeland security challenges (such as a terrorist attacks) he seems less qualified to lead the response to a natural disaster--as evidenced by the local response in New Orleans. A parking lot full of flooded buses and thousands stranded at the Superdome is glaring proof that the city's homeland security department did not do its job, despite "state-of-the-art communications" and "working relationships."

As New Orleans buries its dead and struggles to recover from Katrina, residents should ask if Colonel Ebbert was indeed, the right man for the city's homeland security job. Ebbert's resume is more impressive than Michael Brown's, but it too, has gaping holes. Did those gaps cost some New Orleans's residents their lives? Those are fundamental questions that must be answered and not ignored by the MSM.

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