Hard Work in the Big Easy: New Orleans' Motto Is "Let the Good Times Roll," but Its Homeland Security Efforts since 9-11 Are Anything but Laissez Faire

Article excerpt

New Orleans, famed for its Mardi Gras festival--which draws 1.5 million revelers--is also home to five major universities, nuclear power plants, petroleum facilities and refineries, chemical plants, and seaports, all of which require heightened security attention in the post-9-11 threat environment. New Orleans also has infrastructure elements such as reservoirs, pipelines, and electrical power systems to protect. On top of that, says Colonel Terry Ebbert, director of New Orleans' Homeland Security and Public Safety Department, "We're the only city in the United States that's below sea level, so especially in high-water periods of the year, a breach of our levee system would be catastrophic."

Given the city's vast public and private assets, first responders knew they faced enormous challenges to homeland security after 9-11. Starting the state level, authorities worked quickly to design and implement homeland-security strategy that would mesh with existing emergency preparedness efforts without breaking the bank.

Louisiana is strengthening homeland security in a number of ways, says retired Colonel Jadwin (Jay) Mayeaux, Jr., the division chief for operations and homeland security within the homeland security division of the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness (LOEP). One initiative is the Rapid Response Force, a group of more than 1,200 National Guard soldiers in 11 teams in nine metropolitan areas, including New Orleans. This on-call force can respond immediately to a crisis and reinforce on-site personnel, says Mayeaux.

Another initiative is the Special Reaction Team (SRT), three groups of National Guard soldiers (most of whom work for civilian law enforcement agencies) who "help train and work as a cadre for the Rapid Reaction Force," according to Mayeaux. They can assist and augment civilian authorities and train soldiers in MP tasks. Both groups have been called in to assist New Orleans several times (most recently during college basketball's Final Four weekend) to help the City beef up its law enforcement efforts.

City solutions. Early this year, New Orleans mayor C. Ray Nagin created the position of director for homeland security and public safety, and he appointed Colonel Ebbert to the post. Ebbert is a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel who formerly served as director of security for Boeing Petroleum Services as well as executive director of the New Orleans Police Foundation, so he brings both private-sector security knowledge and law enforcement know-how to the position.

"I have responsibility for coordinating with all the federal and state agencies on behalf of the city in all areas of homeland security," he says. "I have operational control of the police department, fire department, and the office of emergency preparedness, and I report directly to the mayor."

Reorganization. To improve the level of coordination among these first-responder entities, Ebbert changed the way the city's first-responder offices were set up. "The first step we had to do was consolidate the planning processes of the three departments," says Ebbert. "They had always worked independently and reported directly to the chief administrative officer of the city, who reported to the mayor. The change consolidates them into one department working for me, with me reporting to the mayor," he says.

The reorganization has paid off, insiders say. "We're all together under one umbrella, so we have a lot more interaction," notes New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Eddie Compass. Consequently, says Compass, the result is better communication.

Ebbert says that he meets regularly with the three chiefs, and together they've established permanent teams comprising senior leaders from each department who get together to look at issues such as incident command, training, and evacuation planning in great detail. The rapid evolution of communications technology and the new requirements for training make these teams essential, he says. …

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