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California's Emergency Planning Shackled

Red tape is hampering efforts to prepare for a natural disaster or a terror attack, audit says.

September 14, 2006|Evan Halper | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A state audit released this week warns that California's efforts to prepare for a terrorist attack or natural disaster are being undermined by a morass of red tape.

State Auditor Elaine M. Howle says in the report that the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has let tens of millions of dollars in federal emergency preparedness grants languish unspent and has not adequately tested the ability of California's medical facilities to handle mass casualties.

"We believe the state's organizational structure for ensuring emergency preparedness is not streamlined or well-defined," Howle wrote for the nonpartisan watchdog agency. "If it remains unchanged, this labyrinthine structure could adversely affect emergency response."

By the end of June, the state had spent less than half of the $954 million of federal homeland security grants it had been awarded since 2001, the report said.

That money is supposed to be used to reimburse local governments for equipment purchases, training and other expenses related to disaster preparedness. But the state can be so slow in reimbursing these expenses, according to the report, that some cities cannot afford to continue participating in the plan.

"A commander with the city of Santa Ana's Police Department told us the city often runs a deficit from $1.5 million to $4 million because it has not received reimbursements for its homeland security purchases," the report said. "The commander said that at a certain point the city will no longer allow the deficits to increase, preventing additional purchases."

Chris Bertelli, a spokesman for the state Office of Homeland Security, said the administration is working with local governments to speed up the process and during the last year has significantly reduced the time it takes to write checks.

Howle's report, released Tuesday, further cautions that exercises simulating various threats "have not exerted sufficient stress on medical and health systems to determine how well they can respond to emergencies." Though there would be as many as 10,000 casualties in a moderate emergency, the report said the exercise the state conducted last year simulated only 550 casualties "and lacked sufficient realism."

Bertelli said the administration would work on improving the exercises. But he said that although officials agree that there are problems with some drills, he said the report overlooks many other "comprehensive and robust" preparedness exercises held in California each year.

evan.halper@latimes.com

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