In our profile of Pennsylvania, we described how emergency managers there faced tough criticism over the poor handling of a winter storm in 2007 that led to what Gov. Ed Rendell publicly described as a “total breakdown in communications.” He heard about the storm’s severity from stranded citizens, not officials. Pennsylvania wasn’t alone. Despite having studied what happened to the Keystone State, Wisconsin had a similar experience the following year. A winter blizzard in 2008 buried parts of Wisconsin in piles of snow and left more than 2,000 motorists pinned down overnight without food and other supplies on a highway that the state patrol did not close. Like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin officials in charge of disaster response weren’t aware of how problematic the storm had become, and thus didn’t inform the governor that greater assistance was needed. Government blunders in reacting to major storms after the Sept. 11 hijackings raise questions about the effectiveness of billions of dollars in homeland security grants handed out by Washington to state and local communities. Beneficiaries argue the funding should have an “all-hazards” application and not be distributed just for terrorist threats. Most areas of the country are unlikely to be attacked by international extremists, but they do endure tornados, flooding, earthquakes and wildfires, the logic goes. Partly as a result of the 2008 storm, Wisconsin’s Legislative Audit Bureau launched a probe into how the state has used about $218 million in federal readiness funds over five years to determine whether the cash has been spent appropriately. But their report was not yet complete as of our deadline. During the storm, Wisconsin’s top emergency management administrator was trapped in a traffic jam on a highway for four hours. By then, other motorists had been stuck for much longer and a state-level emergency operations center was only beginning to realize that cars were stalled all the way to Illinois, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. “Communication and coordination remained poor as the situation progressed and the day became night,” a later official report concluded. “Agencies were ineffective at sharing important information with the people that needed it. An effective unified command system was not established, which left many of the responders unclear about who was in charge and which actions should be taken. There were no uniform directions given to motorists on what they should or should not do; instead, motorists were dependent on the knowledge of snowmobile volunteers to answer any questions.” A separate investigation called for by Gov. Jim Doyle and carried out by the head of the Wisconsin National Guard found that officials inexplicably almost closed the emergency operations center when the disaster reached an apex and barred some citizen snowmobilers from providing help by checking on marooned drivers. Doyle apologized for the state’s response in the wake of the report. It also found that authorities didn’t fully grasp the breadth of the situation for hours, even though media organizations were reporting on the freeway logjam. Interagency communication between state and county highway departments was “virtually nonexistent.” As snow blanketed the region and traffic was halted, a state patrol lieutenant erroneously informed superiors that the incident was being handled and the operations center could be shut down because there weren’t any major problems. High winds by then had stopped even snow plows from moving about. Public officials vowed that such failures would never occur again. “From one end of this incident to the other, and from top to bottom, it is remarkable the extent to which some operators and decision-makers in local and state agencies failed to use commonplace and well-known information-sharing practices,” Brig. Gen. Donald Dunbar’s report determined. “Operators within the various jurisdictions were cooperating in normal, non-emergency patterns when they were actually in an emergency but did not know it.” As for anti-terrorism and emergency preparedness grant spending in Wisconsin generally, authorities supplied us with a detailed spreadsheet showing how the federal funds were used beginning in 2003. We submitted a request for the material under the state’s open records laws, but it took the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance, which oversees the distribution of law enforcement and homeland security grants, six months to comply. We’ve uploaded the file in Excel format here for you to examine. State and local grant recipients are allowed to actually spend the money up to three years after it’s first awarded, so in many cases more recent spending figures aren’t available. While at times the electronic records don’t provide clear enough descriptions to determine precise, overall amounts for what the state has purchased, the file still easily enables you to search for local communities and detect trends. For example, communities inside Dane County, which was deeply affected by the 2008 storm, spent millions of dollars on intrusion-detection systems, night-vision goggles, chemical-resistant clothing, public safety radios, computer-aided dispatch equipment, bomb-suppression blankets, tactical entry gear, rescue devices and other items. The State Journal reported in March of 2009 that Wisconsin had among other things used the grants to pay for “hazmat story tellers” costing $3,900 a day who described for local officials how they survived industrial explosions or helped rescue victims from tragedies that involved dangerous substances. The paper also said Dane County picked up a $145,000 bomb robot, armored vehicles and “an 18-person van to haul equipment and officers to events like Freakfest,” a Halloween bash that takes place annually in Madison, Wis.
G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.More by G.W. Schulz