A six-man team composed of Arlington police officers, emergency management officials and a fire fighter arrived in New Orleans last week to assist in the recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's colossal destruction.
The Arlington Task Force is assigned to the New Orleans Emergency Operations Center, and is supporting the city's police department by coordinating command and administrative duties. The team expects to work 12-hour shifts and its main tasks will include staff scheduling, aiding the movement of personnel and resources and long-term planning operations.
It is unlikely the outfit will be working on the city's flood-ravaged streets or assist in body retrieval, said Steve Holl, the leader of the team and the deputy chief of the Arlington Police Force.
“The officers down there have been working 19 hour days,” said Robert Griffin, Director of Arlington’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM). “This team can come in and do some real good.”
Some OEM officials said they were frustrated that the task force did not depart until 10 days after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, but understood that it took time to judge the type of assistance needed.
“We watched the heart-wrenching scenes and wished we could jump in the car and drive down there,” Holl said. “But what we know from previous disasters is that could be more problematic.”
A regional group of approximately 55 emergency workers, from Alexandria and Arlington, Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties, will be deployed to the Gulf Coast this week. They most likely will be stationed in New Orleans, Griffin said.
Twelve members of the high-level management team will be from Arlington, including additional police officers, fire fighters and public works officials. They too will help run an emergency operation center in conjunction with local officials and direct public safety, sanitation and health services.
“We plan and train for these kind of events on a daily basis,” said Jeff Stern, OEM’s deputy coordinator, as he packed a bag full of bottled water and toiletries to take with him on his assignment to New Orleans. “This affords us the ability to go into these devastated locations quickly.”
MEMBERS OF THE task force will bring a considerable amount of disaster relief experience with them. Besides being instrumental during the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, half of the six-member team was sent to Florida last year to take part in similar disaster response efforts following Hurricane Charley.
The lessons learned in New Orleans will be vital to strengthening the efficiency of Arlington’s disaster response capabilities, officials said.
“We're getting to exercise what we have learned in a new area and this will make us better prepared if an event happens here,” said Carl Lindgren, who is part of the group sent to New Orleans last week.
Several of the officers expressed consternation that they were not able to get to affected areas sooner.
Under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, an agreement between states for aid, the agencies impacted by a natural disaster must file a formal request before another state can send assistance. Louisiana and Mississippi officials were so overwhelmed with the magnitude of the destruction they had no inkling of what specific aid was needed and would not have been in a position to effectively implement it much earlier than now, Holl said.
“You have to be careful about asking for resources without being able to plug them in,” Holl added. “Agencies have to consider carefully what they need. Sometimes that takes a little while to figure out.”
Arlington officials offered their emergency personnel on Aug. 31 but first had to send the request through the state government in Richmond. They were not notified of a potential deployment until Sept 3, at which point it took several days to complete the necessary paperwork before the task force could be dispatched, Griffin said.
“I wish we already had teams down there,” Griffin said. “It’s frustrating knowing you can send help but are not able to.”
Those who want to volunteer their services should do so through the Red Cross and not travel on their own accord, Arlington officials said. The self-deployment of volunteers to a disaster zone can be a huge burden on local officials, who have to provide food, water and housing for unexpected relief workers, and often drains their resources and time.
“The biggest problem is self-deployment,” Griffin said. “It’s better if people hadn’t shown up. It puts a strain on the local population that is worse than if they hadn’t come.”