In a speech to local politicians, businessmen and women Thursday, September 13, Alfonso Martinez-Fonts, Assistant Secretary for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Private Sector Office, said that the city and people of New Orleans were underprepared Hurricane Katrina. He quickly followed that statement by adding blame to his department and that of FEMA. “No one was able to handle crisis in the initial phase,” he said.
His speech was part of a West Coast tour that included stops in Los Angeles and San Diego as part of National Preparedness Month. The county and city worked with Martinez-Fonts’s office in the Department of Homeland Security to bring to Santa Barbara to speak to more than 100 guests, but the cost was fronted by Marborg Industries and Jordano’s Inc.
Katrina was a perfect storm, the combination of city and state governments being unprepared to handle the situation and a slow federal response, Martinez-Fonts said in response to a question from county Supervisor Brooks Firestone.
California as a state is on the forefront of being aware of and prepared for disaster, Martinez-Fonts noted, as a result of the state’s familiarity with earthquakes. But it’s easy to get complacent. “I believe most people really think nothing is going to happen,” he said, adding that people believe that if something bad does happen, it won’t happen to them. They also believe that someone is going to take care of them. “The challenge is to get people to prepare.”
Martinez-Fonts’s office focuses on dealing with the private business sector in preparing and reacting to disasters. “Business recovery is one of the key components of a community getting back on its feet,” said county emergency operations chief Michael Harris when he introduced the keynote speaker at Fess Parker’s Doubletree Thursday. Those in attendance included Santa Barbara City Councilmembers Grant House, Helene Schneider, Roger Horton and Brian Barnwell, county CEO Mike Brown, city administrator Jim Armstrong, district attorney Christie Stanley, county undersheriff Ken Shemwell, Supervisor Salud Carbajal and Goleta City Councilmembers Roger Aceves and Michael Bennett.
The assistant secretary suggested nobody could’ve known what was going to happen on Sept. 11, 2001, but that since then things have been different. “Things happen,” Martinez-Fonts said. “There are bad things that happen,” Martinez-Fonts said. People used to worry about bad valves at chemical plants that could blow, he cited as an example, but now the country has to look out for planes being used as missiles. There is a “new normal,” which means a heightened state of alert.
He recommended three action steps for the business leaders and politicians in the audience – to make a plan and exercise it, to talk to employees and help them prepare, and to talk to one another, keeping one another informed and able to respond to emergency situations.