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N.O. former Homeland Security director speaks out

5th July 2011   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
The Louisiana Weekly

In his new book, former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin takes shots at President George W. Bush for not deploying military assets in Louisiana fast enough, and Gov. Kathleen Blanco for refusing the earlier pledges of help, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Nagin goes so far as to imply race as a motive for the delay in getting federal help to inundated New Orleans after the storm winds, and the subsequent levee collapses, had flooded most of the city.

The former Mayor’s Homeland Security Director, retired Col. Terry Ebbert does not claim race to be a motive, but he had some definite critiques of the slow response of the Bush Administration, in an interview with The Louisiana Weekly.

“I think that everybody was trying not step on one another’s toes, and we were caught in the middle,” Ebbert explained.

Most Bush defenders point to the fact that Gov. Blanco refused federal aid on the Monday after Katrina as the reason that the President did not immediately deploy military assets to the Crescent City. Ebbert, an expert in military procedure as well as emergency preparedness regulations, argued that Bush was not limited by the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, as the President maintained.

“I think that the interpretation of what was going on,” Ebbert explained, was wrong. “There were some advisors that had not read their own laws…The Posse Comitatus Act does not say you have to federalize to use the military. It only applies to law enforcement actions.”

Not to military deployments in cases of natural disaster, the former NOLA Homeland Chief cited. The Act, passed after Recon­struction to prevent the deployment of occupation troops on U.S. soil, does not prevent the use of military personnel in rescue or humanitarian actions.

“I think that we are smart enough as a nation…to utilize all the capabilities when it has citizens in need.” Whether we have learned that lesson of 2005 is questionable, Ebbert noted. “BP oil spill shows us that we still struggle with who’s in charge. “

Ebbert, while quick to note that he hasn’t “had a chance to read” Nagin’s book, said, “I have read the clips.” The Homeland Security chief was a little more forgiving of the pre-Katrina evacuation than Mayor Nagin. “I think that the evacuation, when you go back and look what we did, the people who had the means to get out of town, 50 hours was adequate time…The roads were clear and we had contraflow.”

The problem came from those without their own cars, a dilemma that “since Katrina, we have been working with the federal government to help people to get out who don’t have transportation.”

“It’s an ongoing problem. It’s a problem at the lowest level. It’s a ballet, not a football game.” With multiple parishes and two states conducting contraflow, Ebbert asked rhetorically, “How do you formalize the evacuation, instead of just scattering 30,000 people across a state?”

“No state is an island,” he said, adding, “I think we are better off, but we have a long way to go.”

Preparation for a future storm “means including [not only] how you prepare for these storms, but how you do not have to run from them.” New Orleans has to create a capacity to shelter people internally, without evacuation being a necessity. Only then can we send the message to the nation that we are “a resilient community that can take care of its own.”

One area that has improved since Katrina, in Ebbert’s view, is communication. While prior to the storm, even local parish police and sheriff’s offices could not talk to one another, now all federal and local law enforcement can. “One of the advantages of being in the impact area is the destruction of the radio system we had,” Ebbert said. “We are now blessed with an interoperable radio system. We used it for the BP oil spill, could talk across parish lines, from Houma to Mississippi.”

Still, emergency preparedness training must continue. “Just because your equipment works, you have to have good coordination.”

As to whether we have recovered six years after Hurricane Katrina, Ebbert observed, “As far as the economy, we have done rather well. We have a lot of buildings that have not been rebuilt, that includes government buildings, schools.”

But, Ebbert also noted that the renaissance in education has done more to rehabilitate New Orleans’ image than anything else post-Katrina. It is a subject about which he feels strongly—as the man who is currently plays a large role in organizing the area’s newest Charter School.

The New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy will début for the 2011-2012 school year in Algiers. Eventually it will be housed at the former Naval Support Activity, now called Federal City, adjacent to the new Marine Corps Reserve headquarters.

A Type Two Charter, it is open to all Louisiana students entering the ninth grade, regardless of whether or not they live in Orleans Parish.

Ebbert explained that the mission of the new school is to develop and foster strong character among students who exhibit leadership, citizenship, teamwork and communication skills. NOMMA’s founders are retired Marine Corps Officers who were inspired to fill the need for better quality public education and character-building in the community. The military maritime education method, which combines rigorous academics with an educational environment that stresses ethical decision-making, is proven to improve confidence and maturity in students while preparing them for a successful college career.

NOMMA graduates will not be required to join the military, but students will participate in the JROTC program and learn time-tested values and standards developed by the military over hundreds of years. According Ebbert, “The Academy believes that the purpose of education is to create responsible, productive citizens. No matter what a student’s previous school experiences are, this curriculum fosters the character building necessary for students to reach their academic and personal potential.”

The school will employ masters-level teachers along with former Marine officials. In addition to the military and maritime components, a Robotics course called “Cyber Science,” will give students an opportunity to compete in robotics, science and math programs as part of NOMMA’s partnership with the highly-accredited Louisiana Cyber Innovation Center.

“It will also offer a tremendous mix with music, with the Marine Corps Band across the street,” Ebbert explained.

The New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy is a Type 2 State Charter school open to all students in Louisiana. The school is located initially at the old Henderson Middle School facility on Landry Avenue in Algiers for its first year and will expand next year into the new, state-of-the-art Federal City facility the following year. Enrollment for the first year will be limited to 150 freshmen. Students from Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines and St. Tammany parishes have already enrolled in the new New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy.

“While there are a large number of military dependent children, it is a myth that the school is limited to that group,” Ebbert maintained. “This is a school for anybody.” (There are still spots open. Parents can find more information by going online at www.nomma.net or calling (504) 875-6208.)

In education, just as in all areas of Hurricane recovery and preparedness, Ebbert pointed out, “I think that the secret is that we have to be able to show the world that we are a self reliant city that knows how to manage storms. And to make this thing work, we need to build a community, in all ways, of which we can be proud.”

This article originally published in the July 4, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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