N.O. emergency officials make plea for restored funds

Emergency preparedness officials from the metro area are demanding that the state restore grant money they say they need in order to avoid layoffs and keep their offices fully operational.

In response, the director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness had a blunt message for the local officials: If the funding is that important, find a way to replace it.

At stake is 80 percent of Emergency Management Preparedness Grant funding for 2013. The money, which comes from the federal government and is distributed by the state to every parish, is used to fund equipment and positions critical to local emergency preparedness.

In a March 4 letter to Kevin Davis, director of GOHSEP, emergency preparedness directors from Orleans, St. Bernard, Plaquemines and Jefferson parishes wrote that the cuts could “significantly impact our ability to provide local emergency management.

“Also, there is a real fear that this decision could bring emergency management in Louisiana back to pre-Katrina level,” the emergency directors wrote.

Lt. Col. Jerry Sneed, director of New Orleans’ Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said his office will receive $49,368 in 2013, down from $154,000 it received in EMPG funding last year. That difference means he’ll have to lay off one person from his five-person office.

“It hurts badly,” he said of the reduction in grant funding.

Plaquemines Parish Office of Homeland Security Director Guy Laigast said that he, too, would likely have to resort to laying off one of his three emergency preparedness staffers since the grant money partially funds two positions.

This year, he said, his office will get $7,000. Last year it received $35,000, he said.

While most people tend to think of emergency preparedness as related to hurricane season, Laigast said, it is more than that, noting that his parish alone has several major refineries and 85 miles of the Mississippi River to oversee.

Sneed pointed out that his office deals with everything from major events, such as Carnival, to other weather phenomenon beside hurricanes.

Ultimately, Sneed said, it is local government that responds to local emergencies, not the state. “GOHSEP never get involved in our flood events,” he said.

Jefferson received $186,865 last year and is expecting $59,000 this year, according to Charlie Hudson, interim director of the Emergency Management Department.

Hudson said that the EMPG funds in his office have previously been put toward some of the director’s salary and utility bills at the old emergency operations center.

In recent years, he said, the office has used the grant money to support resources for response to tropical events and homeland security, such as satellite contracts for phones, two mobile command units and training expenses.

“It’s going to be a budgeting issue,” Hudson said of the cuts he faces. “Do you want the resources or the personnel? It’s a Catch 22.”

St. Bernard last year received $42,859, according to Christina Stephens, a GOHSEP spokeswoman. She could not provide a figure for how much the parish will get this year. A St. Bernard Parish spokeswoman did not return a message Thursday seeking comment.

In a prepared statement, Davis, of GOHSEP, said that emergency response today is “light-years ahead of pre-Katrina emergency management” and argued that the state is involved with local emergency response.

Davis said his office provides support to each parish in the form of “training, planning assistance, regional coordination as well as help distributing resources from the federal government.

“That’s why we need a strong emergency operations center at the state level, because it ensures that we can respond quickly to incidents in all areas of the state from Orleans to Ouachita and back,” Davis said.

Davis said the reductions were made since the funding was not used by parishes in the allotted time for the grant.

“Additionally, in order for the state or the parishes to access this EMPG funding at all, the state must first match 50 percent of the funds — none of which come from a local source,” Davis said, adding that “If this is a critical need, New Orleans needs to make this a priority and fund it.”