THE MAGAZINE

State Perspective - Louisiana

By Joseph Straw

Mark Cooper has served as director of the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP) since January 2008.  A Louisiana native, Cooper returned home to accept Gov. Bobby Jindal’s appointment after nearly two decades in Southern California. There he held various executive positions with public safety agencies in Los Angeles County, including deputy chief of the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD), managing a billion-dollar budget, human resources for 4,200 personnel, and IT support for the department dispatch center.  He also served as the department’s emergency coordinator, developing  emergency plans and programs to support the agency in the county’s emergency operations center, and sat on the county’s Emergency Management Council subcommittee representing the department chief.  In 2005, he led a team deployed to New Orleans for four weeks in response to Hurricane Katrina to assist with continuity of government and mass fatality management.

Earlier in his career, Cooper served as a Division Chief for the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Department, and was the agency’s first emergency manager, coordinating its response to the unrest that followed the April 1992 Rodney King verdict. 

From 1993 to 1998 Cooper served as executive assistant to the chief of the LACoFD, developing fire safety recommendations for the county following the 1993 wildfires, managing employee assistance following the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and coordinating support of its Urban Search and Rescue team deployed to the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing. From 1998 to 2002, Cooper served as a bureau chief with the Los Angeles County Police Department, establishing their emergency operations center and developing emergency management plans for the 2000 Democratic National Convention. From 2002 to 2003, Cooper served as a division chief of the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors, overseeing business operations. Cooper has developed emergency management training programs for Universal Studios, NBC Studios, and numerous  local governments.

An alumnus of Louisiana State University’s (LSU) E.J. Ourso School of Business and Public Administration, Cooper was named LSU Distinguished Alumni of the Year for 2006.  In 2000 he received Los Angeles County’s inaugural Award of Excellence in Emergency Management, and in 2001, he received his Professional Development Certificate in Emergency Management from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Q. What are your office’s responsibilities?

A. Homeland security, meaning the prevention piece, is part of our mission, in addition to traditional emergency management. Sometimes those two terms are used interchangeably. In a lot of states those two functions are kept separate, with prevention solely assigned to the state police agency.  The Louisiana State Police of course plays a key role in prevention, and we work very closely with them in our homeland security efforts.

Q. What threats and assets make Louisiana unique?

A. As far as natural threats, obviously it’s hurricanes. That’s the natural disaster that we plan for on a daily basis. We’re an all-hazards organization, but that’s the primary one. In terms of manmade threats, our concerns are similar to what other states and jurisdictions face. But given the Port of New Orleans, the fact that the Mississippi River comes right through our state, and river traffic going both south and north, obviously that presents potential targets for a homeland security incident.

Q. How is the state’s homeland security apparatus different now than it was before Hurricane Katrina?

A. Well one of the major changes was the establishment of GOHSEP, handling responsibilities that used to be part of the Louisiana National Guard. And they made my post a cabinet-level position that reports directly to the governor, to give the governor’s office more of a direct link to what we’re doing, and to provide accountable, day-to-day leadership.

Q. How did those changes manifest themselves during, for example, hurricanes Ike and Gustav in 2008?

A. Well I think the positive thing from it, in being part of the Governor’s cabinet, is that most of his cabinet have a primary role during a disaster, and one of the things that he did early on is he instituted weekly cabinet meetings, some of which we talk specifically about emergency preparedness and response. So the reason that was good was that there was a keen understanding among members of his cabinet how important our function is, emergency management is, and those relationships were formed prior to Gustav and Ike hitting, and actually we had several disaster exercises with the cabinet, and so I think that was a large part of the reason why we were so successful during Gustav and Ike, because the disaster is not a time to exchange business cards, and my understanding in the past that that wasn’t the case, that there was not day to day, but week to week interaction among the cabinet members, and I think that was a major change and I think that’s one of the reasons why we were successful.

Q. What is the biggest challenge of your job?

A. I think the biggest challenge is the large number of stakeholders that we have, that we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis, and coordinate with. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. At the local level we’re dealing with 63 local emergency management directors. Those are people who I deal with on a day to day basis to coordinate with and make sure that we’re listening to their needs and that we’re being supportive.

Of course at the federal level, in dealing with our stakeholders, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other federal agencies. And in addition to that it’s dealing with state agencies and coordinating preparedness and response for the state of Louisiana, and having to coordinate with all those state agencies that have a primary responsibility and then there’s those other groups that are stakeholders like the sheriffs and fire chiefs in Louisiana. So I think the biggest challenge is just coordination and communication with those folks, and making sure that we’re all on the same page and that we have plans in place and understand those plans and that they’re ready to execute when a disaster occurs. And that’s one of the things that we did the first year, painstakingly, was meeting with those external stakeholders and opening up dialogue which it’s my understanding was not necessarily there previously. And so that’s one of the reason’s why I think we were successful as a state was because we’re working together as a group, similar to the Cabinet.

Q. How would you characterize your office’s relationship with its federal partners? What would you change if you could?

A. Well as far as the emergency preparedness and response piece I would consider it good. We deal with FEMA Region VI, we have a good relationship with those folks, they’re in the process of making some changes at the senior level with the Obama Administration, but I’m hopeful that whoever they select as the Region VI administrator, we’ll have a good relationship as well. But the individuals that report to the regional administrator, we work very well with.

The one area obviously that’s been in the media that we would like to change is the recovery piece. We have a transitional recovery office in New Orleans that we deal with that’s an arm of FEMA, and we’ve got some issues with how long it’s taking for recovery to take place, and you know that’s probably the one area that we would like to see changed. And in fact DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano’s office has already reached out to us to want to meet with us to talk about those issues and concerns.

Q. How is your office weathering the current fiscal crisis?

A. I think the important thing here is that Gov. Jindal understands the importance of what we do, and how important homeland security and emergency preparedness are for the state of Louisiana. And of course he saw that play out as he led our state’s response to Gustav and Ike. So it’s not a matter of selling him on how important it is, it’s a matter of competing against other important interests in the state. I think he has shown time and time again that he supports our mission, but again it’s going to depend on what funding is available. However we’re trying to do what we can to be smart with the funding that we do have, to make sure that it is being utilized to the best degree possible with regard to our core mission. I think that’s what we’re doing in this current fiscal environment is making sure that dollars are being spent wisely, and we’re discovering that there are some efficiencies that we can achieve. All emergencies are local, so that’s where it all begins, so everything that we’re doing, we’re just making sure that it supports the locals.

Q. Has your office engaged the private sector to strengthen preparedness or response? If so, how?

A. One of the success stories during Gustav and Ike was that we integrated a business emergency operations center into what we were doing here in Louisiana, and utilized a lot of the private industry to help us with some of the problems that we encountered. And we’re going to continue to expand on that. That’s kind of a concept that we’re looking at, kind of a business emergency operations center, a business EOC, so that we can bring private industry in to assist us with problems that they can better solve than government bureaucracy can.

The other thing too that we’re starting to tap into is public-private partnerships and sponsorships. This past hurricane season was the first time the state really has a comprehensive public information campaign and we got support from, you know, the American Red Cross and the United Way, but we also had a partnership with Wal-Mart and we’re trying to expand upon that as well as other agencies, especially when we’re looking at, you know, this financial situation continuing for maybe a couple years, is maybe getting them to partner and sponsor some of our programs.

Q. And that would be like a name sponsorship?

A. Yes, that’s what were looking at, exactly. Like our website that we established this year called Get a Gameplan, which is our public information program. It kind of plays off of Louisiana’s love of sports, with Louisiana State University (LSU) winning the national championship in football, and New Orleans Saints and the Hornets. We’ve involved local sports stars, the coach of LSU, the Hornets, etc., to get that message across. We established the Web page as part of that campaign, and I think we received over a million hits. So what a perfect avenue for a business that sells generators or emergency supplies, to allow them to, in exchange for them helping us sponsor our public education programs, to allow them to put their branding on our website. That’s one example.

Q. Have any sponsors been named or locked in?

A. No, we’re currently in that phase, of trying to identify them. I know Wal-Mart has been supportive, we’re also looking at the insurance industry. Obviously they’ve got a vested interest in people being prepared for the next disaster, whatever it is. The discount stores where people go to get their emergency supplies is an obvious one. And we’re just trying to think outside the box, because down the road, again with this financial crisis, if it gets any worse, that’s where we would utilize these partnerships and sponsorships.

Q. Has your office conducted any recent exercises that have produced valuable lessons?

A. Well we do exercises on a regular basis, but most of our exercises occur in late spring prior to hurricane season. This is my first year in Louisiana, and for the Governor and his team, their first year in office. What we learned was how important it is that collaboration takes place before a disaster hits. And one of the things that we did for Louisiana last year during the legislative session was establish an emergency management structure for the state based on the National Incident Management System, which previously didn’t exist. We had a unified command group where the governor serves as the unified commander, and my position is the deputy unified commander. In the past, officials only met when there was an exercise or when there was a disaster. But we had legislation passed that mandates that group meet at least on a quarterly basis to be more of a strategic decision-making body, so that they can look at what the issues are and come up with solutions. In addition to that it’s established subcommittee structure that brings in first responders who report up to the unified command group, as well as our parish directors as well as interoperability. So to answer your question, the lesson learned is how important those relationships are, and that’s what we’ve been trying to foster and support.

Q. What are some of your office’s goals for the coming year?

A. We were very successful during Gustav and Ike, but there’s still some tweaking that needs to take place, especially as it relates to sheltering. We relied a lot on outside states to provide sheltering for Louisiana residents. What we’re hoping to do, whether with the state of Louisiana or through FEMA, is identify funding sources where we can build more hardened multipurpose facilities that can serve as shelters during hurricane season, so that we’re not having to spend millions of dollars to either bus or by train or by airplane our residents, what we call our “critical transportation needs population,” individuals who during Katrina were left there or evacuated to the superdome—but we can shelter them closer to home, and it would just save tax dollar money plus it’s better for the citizens, versus having to go to Kentucky or Tennessee during these evacuations. We were able to successfully evacuate 1.9 million people during Gustav, but we relied a lot on other states, and again it just makes more sense to build shelters in-state that can be used as multipurpose facilities so that when it’s not hurricane season they could be used by the local jurisdiction, but also these shelters could be used by other states if they need shelter capabilities, like for example Texas.

So probably that sheltering piece is probably the most important. And then the transportation to get them to the shelters; those are the two areas that we’re focusing on.

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