In the confusion following the collapse of the I35W bridge on Aug. 1, local police, firefighters and paramedics were hampered by a weak link in the emergency management command chain – the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
MnDOT was supposed to assume responsibility for rescue and recovery efforts within 48 hours of the failure of its own bridge, but that was delayed for several days because MnDOT officials “didn’t know what they were doing,” said state Rep. Jeremy Kalin of Lindstrom. “Everybody worked seamlessly, except for MnDOT.”
Meanwhile, MnDOT’s director of emergency management, Sonia Morphew Pitt, was out of town and stayed away for the next 10 days. Moreover, neither she nor any of the five members of her staff had been certified in emergency management by the state Department of Public Safety.
“MnDOT wasn’t prepared or properly trained,” said Kalin, who voiced his concerns in a recent letter to Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “While nobody plans to fail, it appears that MnDOT failed to plan, and I heard frustration from other first responders. MnDOT needs to do better.”
Emergency management certification through a six-week training course isn’t a legal requirement for most state agency personnel, but other state departments, including Natural Resources, Veterans Affairs, Public Safety, Health and Agriculture, do have certified staffers, Kalin said. He plans to introduce legislation to require at least one official in each state agency to gain the certification.
Pitt was fired Nov. 9 following a MnDOT investigation that uncovered “serious employee misconduct pertaining to out-of-state travel, misuse of state resources and conduct unbecoming to MnDOT,” said Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, who heads the agency.
A legislative auditor’s investigation of Pitt casts further light on her performance and MnDOT’s lack of supervision. It can be found here.
It’s already known that Pitt cancelled five days of training, including a course in debris management in late July, before she left July 26 on her travels to Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. Pitt and four others in her office were enrolled in a three-day class in mass fatalities incident response, but that isn’t to be held until next April.
Today, the untrained and uncertified staffers at MnDOT’s division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management include the acting director, Cathy Clark, pandemic planner John Cavanaugh, logistics coordinator Desiree Doud, infrastructure and facility security coordinator Bruce Price and Susan Walto, the director of training, exercises and radiological emergency preparedness. Altogether, the five cancelled more than 100 hours of training in which they had been enrolled this year and last, state records show.
This occurred despite a warning from MnDOT officials that federal funding could be withheld if certain training wasn’t completed by emergency management staff.
“Given the exemplary response by all others involved in the bridge disaster, we must ensure there is no weak link should Minnesota face a similar incident in the future,” Kalin wrote to Pawlenty.
MnDOT spokespeople did not return several calls for comment this week from Minnesota 2020.
Senate Transportation Chairman Steve Murphy of Red Wing is also concerned about MnDOT’s loose approach to vital training. He said agency officials falsely told a legislative committee this year that all of MnDOT’s emergency management personnel were fully trained and certified. They later maintained that the training wasn’t needed to get federal funding, Murphy said.
Such a situation wouldn’t be tolerated at the Xcel Energy power plant where Murphy works as a fuels technician in addition to his legislative duties.
“If we don’t get the training, we don’t get paid,” he said. “We’re done.” The lapses at MnDOT, Murphy added, are another reason for the state Senate to reject Molnau’s confirmation as transportation commissioner and force her out of the job.