Panel: Hurricane on heels of the BP oil spill could create chaos

Five years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged areas of Louisiana and Mississippi, policy experts are urging Congress and President Obama to clarify lines of authority and the roles of disaster response entities in the event another hurricane hits the Gulf Coast.

In early August, the nonpartisan Center for National Policy and the Community and Regional Resilience Institute sent a delegation of experts to the greater New Orleans area to meet with local political, business and nonprofit leaders. From these discussions, the delegation developed 10 recommendations to improve the resiliency of the coastal region.

"The Gulf Coast is probably more fragile than it was in 2005," Warren Edwards, director of CARRI and a member of the delegation, said during a panel discussion Friday at the Newseum in Washington. Having already faced the "triple whammy" of Katrina, the economic recession and the BP oil spill, the region would be devastated if another hurricane hit, Edwards and other panelists said.

Furthermore, a storm on the heels of the oil spill could create confusion over authority since the response to each disaster would be guided by different laws. The 1990 Oil Pollution Act governs cleanup from the Deepwater Horizon spill. Even so, local officials told the delegation that it remains unclear who is authorized to do what. Part of the confusion stems from required rotations of government relief workers and BP staff, officials said. In the words of one Louisiana parish president, "As soon as you have someone who understands what's going on, company regulations force them to move out and a new person moves in."

This uncertainty would only intensify in the event of a hurricane, after which the response would be authorized under the 1988 Stafford Act, panelists said. OPA and the Stafford Act are designed to coexist, the panelists noted, but Gulf Coast leaders are unsure how these response frameworks would function together. The delegation concluded the federal government must be clearer in communicating local leaders' roles and responsibilities in the event a hurricane strikes while the oil spill cleanup is ongoing.

"These events are forcastable and predictable," said Stephen Flynn, CNP president and a member of the delegation. This year's hurricane season is predicted to be one of the worst in the recent decades, and although the Gulf Coast has yet to witness a powerful storm, Flynn said the potential for disaster remains. "Let's do things upfront," he said.

Panelists also urged increased coordination among state insurance commissioners, private insurance companies and the BP claims department. Warren described the current level of claims coordination as "Byzantine, at best."

The panelists reported the residents of the Gulf Coast have little confidence in the federal government and BP. Local people are "smart and capable," and they want to be included in the planning of oil spill and hurricane response efforts, Warren said. "These are hearty folks," Flynn added.

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