Nick Coleman: MnDOT's crisis manager still AWOL

  • Article by: NICK COLEMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 1, 2007 - 8:11 PM

We are still searching for Minnesota's Mystery Emergency Manager: Sonia Morphew Pitt.

It's been three months since the director of MnDOT's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management neglected to return to Minnesota after the catastrophic collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge.

Now, it turns out she skipped a pertinent emergency training class to linger among the hotel lobbies of the East Coast while the state tried to deal with an emergency of the very kind she was supposed to help manage.

According to records from the Minnesota Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Pitt enrolled in a 16-hour Debris Management course in July but canceled her enrollment and flew to Washington, D.C., on July 26, later traveling to Boston for a class at Harvard University, then returning to Washington, where she stayed until Aug. 11.

The 35W bridge fell Aug. 1, but it was 10 days before Pitt came back. MnDOT initially said Pitt managed her office's response by phone. Remote control of an emergency, however, runs counter to the MnDOT emergency preparedness plan outlined by Pitt herself, and is absurd on its face.

Pitt also hadn't taken a class called "Mass Fatalities Incident Response," which the state requires to certify county and city emergency managers. Pitt signed up to take that class next April. That comes under the heading, "Closing the Barn Door After the Horses Are Gone."

Thirteen people died in the bridge collapse.

James Nobles, the legislative auditor, is expected to release the results of an investigation into Pitt's taxpayer-funded wanderings in a few weeks. Meanwhile, Pitt has been harder to track than Tim Pawlenty's stand on a gas tax increase.

Pitt is on a leave of absence -- officials won't say whether it's paid or unpaid -- while MnDOT investigates how she responded to the bridge disaster. The answer would seem obvious, but the bureaucracy is moving very slowly, and hiding behind the lawyers.

Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau, who is Gov. Tim Pawlenty's lieutenant governor, has refused to comment on Pitt's performance. Pawlenty also has been tight-lipped, other than to imply that he was very vexed. The allegations against Pitt are "concerning," he told listeners to his radio show in September. But he couldn't go further, because he said he has to follow protocol.

If everyone followed protocol, bridges might not collapse and emergency managers might show up for duty.

The dereliction here would be astounding if we weren't so accustomed to dereliction from our governments.

Pitt, whose previous experience was limited to public relations and communications, was appointed in November 2003, supervising five workers and an office budget of $5 million. According to records obtained by state Sen. Kathy Saltzman, neither Pitt nor her staff was certified by the state in emergency management training of the kind required for local officials.

"Here we have a department with a $5 million budget and none of [the staff] are certified, while she is flying all over the country and hasn't even been trained to the level we require county officials to be trained," says Saltzman, a DFLer from Woodbury.

"Where is the oversight?"

I'm afraid the oversight in the bridge disaster is this:

"Heckuva job, Pitt."

By the way, the 2003 announcement of Pitt's appointment appeared in the same MnDOT newsletter in which Pawlenty and Molnau unveiled their plan to permit "solo drivers" to pay a fee to use the high-occupancy "sane lane" on Interstate 394.

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