Homeland security chief echoes report, except criticism

homeland-security-chief-echoes-report-except-criticism
Jerome Hauer. (Governor's office)
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The head of the state's homeland security division said he largely agreed with the critical findings outlined in a leaked report over the weekend, but stopped short of criticizing Governor Andrew Cuomo's preparations for Hurricane Sandy.

In an interview with Capital on Sunday, Jerome Hauer, the chair of Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, echoed some of the findings outlined in a report that was detailed in the Times-Union on Sunday.

DHSES requested a review of the state’s response to the October 2012 storm last spring, to determine areas in which the state could improve. But the report, two drafts of which were finalized in July 2013, was never widely released.

The highly detailed version of the report was sharply critical of the Cuomo administration and New York’s emergency management system. It specifically questioned the governor’s improvisational handling of the storm and his decision not to follow the state’s emergency protocols.

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Cuomo took a conspicuously active role in the aftermath of the storm, and was widely praised for his hands-on handling by the public and the media. His approval ratings soared in the storm’s aftermath.

According to the report, that ad hoc style of decision-making ultimately created confusion and extra work for employees in an understaffed office, and weakened agency morale.

Hauer agreed with the reports' criticism of the state’s asset-monitoring system, which lost track of the state’s emergency supplies after they’d been delivered, and the outdated computer system used to track requests for resources from local officials. 

“I think logistics and asset tracking was horribly done,” Hauer said. “There are some issues which are very real.”

Hauer said the state had a difficult time retrieving expensive or unused supplies after they'd been delivered, because the state lacked a system to track large amounts of equipment, but the state is working to reform that process.

“We are now able to track with G.P.S. all of our equipment that’s over two thousand dollars. We know where it is, we know who it’s signed out to,” Hauer said. The state is also overhauling its emergency operations software, because “the computer system is just not good at all,” he said.

The report took sharp aim at Cuomo’s decision to fire the state Office of Emergency management director Steve Kuhr on Nov. 7, for misusing state workers by diverting a tree-clearing crew to his house to remove a fallen tree just days after the storm struck.

That decision “essentially decapitated the agency at a critical moment,” the report said, resulting in delays in emergency response and creating a “day-to-day leadership vacuum with OEM."

“The Director, although not necessarily well-liked by some in the agency, did have the experience and energy to lead OEM operations; the absence of a deep bench of experienced emergency managers within the office was felt almost immediately,” the report said.

Hauer said Kuhr’s firing had put him in a difficult position, but stopped short of criticizing the governor for it.

“You know, it took away, a person that was very knowledgeable and it was really my right-hand person,” Hauer said, noting that “I’ve known Steve for 25 years and Steve is the ultimate professional when it comes to emergency management.”

“I was in a difficult spot with this one. You know ultimately that job is appointed by the governor - they felt that that [the firing] was necessary and ... you know we moved on from there.”

But Hauer didn’t agree with all of the criticisms in the longer version of the report, including the broad charge that Cuomo’s office ran a recovery effort that bypassed the chain of command and normal protocols and weakened agency morale. Cuomo’s administration has previously defended its decision to sidestep the state's official disaster procedure, calling those guidelines outdated.

A report by the Wall Street Journal last spring showed Cuomo never made three required appointments to the state's Disaster Preparedness Commission, the body charged with reviewing the state's emergency plans. That commission met only once between Cuomo's inauguration in January 2011 and the storm's arrival in October 2012, although state law required it to meet twice a year.

Hauer defended Cuomo’s decision, criticized in the report, to establish a command post in New York City, even though the state’s emergency operations are supposed to be run from Albany.

While that decision created some initial logistical problems, it was ultimately a wise one, Hauer said.

“I have never taken a written plan off the shelf and read through it,” Hauer said, defending Cuomo’s decision to essentially throw out the storm playbook.

“If you don't have it practiced and you're not able to adapt as an incident unfolds, then the whole purpose of exercising and planning goes out the window,” Hauer said. “So I understand some of the criticism and on its face, for the first 24 hours. It created a lot of angst, but bottom line is, it worked.”

Hauer said the report’s findings weren’t a secret, and were discussed in public, during a Disaster Preparedness Commission meeting held six months ago.

“That was open to the media and the public - had someone showed up at that and taken notes, a lot of the issues would have come out for everyone to see.”

Hauer also defended the decision not to include some of the more critical details included in the longer version of the report.

“The other version got into a lot of specifics and names. I didn't feel there was a need to have every little detail out in the public,” he said.”There was nothing to hide but it didn't accomplish anything.”

The report, which the Times-Union said was costing the state between $70,000 and $100,000, was created by the National Center for Security & Preparedness, a division of SUNY Albany.

The center and its director Rick Mathews, whom the paper described as having a “cozy relationship” with Hauer, are under investigation by the state’s inspector general, the Times-Union reported.

Reached by phone for comment and asked what the IG was investigating, Mathews said, “I don’t know.”

“It’s not investigating my center or me — anything about an IG investigation, you’d have to ask the IG,” Mathews told Capital.

Mathews also defended the decision to leave some details out of the final report, characterizing it as a stylistic choice, not a deliberate attempt to cover up criticism of the governor's office.

“Anytime you write a report you have stuff you include and things you don’t include and ultimately we made a report that we thought was pretty balanced,” Mathews said.

Hauer said he believed the I.G.’s investigation into Mathews was little more than a routine audit and would find nothing untoward.

“I think they’re just looking to make sure the bookkeeping in that shop is adequate,” Hauer said. “The funny part about that is six months ago, I asked my staff to do a review to ensure that of his books, just to ensure that we were getting what we paid for,” Hauer said. So far, that audit had uncovered “some issues as far as just bookkeeping but nothing horrible, or inappropriate,” he said.

The commissioner objected the Times-Union's characterization of his relationship with Mathews and the Center as "cozy". “I’ve never done a dime’s worth of business with them” he said.

“I am very comfortable because I have done nothing wrong,” he said. “I have never been accused of anything. I’ve never been investigated for anything as a government official and all of a sudden, all of this bad stuff has happened,” he said.

“You’ve got to wonder what the motivation is. I worked for a governor for seven years. Never had one question about my integrity,” he said.