Lessons not learned before Katrina hit

The disaster in New Orleans seems unimaginable to all of us, and personally disconcerting to me as a former resident and Tulane University graduate.  I return annually to the Big Easy, my favorite city in the USA, and seeing it under water and knowing the trauma being borne by the good people of New Orleans, friends and acquaintances alike, is heart—wrenching.

But now, as a nation, we cannot just feel sorry for ourselves. We also must focus on fixing the problems in our catastrophe planning—and—preparation system.  But first, let's understand a very important point.

The terrorists are watching our response.  They are identifying new vulnerabilities —— and they are unlikely to give us 96 to 48 hours' warning before conducting a weapon of mass destruction attack.  Katrina is as close a drill to a nuclear weapon event as we could ever hope to exercise. 

Bottom Line:  Our federal crisis planning and response system is too reactive, and too oriented on responding to support requests from state and local officials.  It must be made more pro—active, directive and placed at the trigger—pull ready.

How Bush 41 Did It

One lesson I thought we had learned from Hurricane Andrew is that after a major disaster, the local and even state governmental system can become rapidly overwhelmed and paralyzed.  It is a near certainty that local government and police will be in a 'not mission capable' status.  Therefore the early entry of military forces with other state and local police forces marshaled into the destroyed zones is imperative, not only to stabilize the situation, but to show citizens that their government still stands and they haven't been abandoned.    During the week after Andrew struck, as the local circumstances deteriorated, the first Bush administration realized — almost too late — that it needed to mobilize a robust military force and put it into the affected area.  The 10th Mountain Division was deployed and rapidly established command and control, logistics support and — just as important — established a flow of information to local citizens critical to bringing comfort and hope to traumatized communities.

We fell short of this standard in New Orleans.

After 9—11, the Department of Defense reorganized and created the US Northern Command.  Its mission is to plan, organize, and execute homeland defense against foreign invasion as well as domestic military and terrorist threats, and to and coordinate Department of Defense (DOD) activities in support to civil authorities.  With a ready staff and interagency partners, NORTHCOM has established an excellent planning and exercise capability for natural or man—made catastrophes.   Ironically, it was only last month that the new joint publication for 'Homeland Security,' was published that details NORTHCOM's  and the DOD's roles in just these missions.

But we are a federal republic, so the President and national agencies work to support state and local officials—not to usurp them or "take over."   We expect our local and state governments to govern and manage their polities, their policies and programs; to plan and prepare for crises and to continue governing.  Indeed Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 states clearly:

'The Federal Government recognizes the roles and responsibilities of State and local authorities in domestic incident management. Initial responsibility for managing domestic incidents generally falls on State and local authorities. The Federal Government will assist State and local authorities when their resources are overwhelmed, or when Federal interests are involved.'

Consequently Presidential declarations of emergency provide legal authority for the national government to spend money and release national resources, such as the armed forces, and provide 'all necessary support' to support, rather than to supplant, state and local civil authorities. It's the state and local government that bear the burden of requesting support, and of identifying requirements, and they are expected to provide direction for response in coordination and with the help of national agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). 

The FEMA mission is to coordinate relief efforts of the federal government with state and local officials.  It is not a 'first responder' organization, but supports first responders, rescue and recovery with the assistance of DoD resources.

How the Guard Works

The National Guards of the 50 states —— the state militias —— are under the command of the state governors, who exercise their authority through the State Adjutant Generals. National Guard units are first readied and tasked to perform missions in support of their state civil authorities, and are legally entitled to perform law enforcement tasks. Only when federalized by Presidential directive do Guard commanders become active duty forces that can respond to national emergencies at home and abroad. 

Adjutant Generals are obliged to report their status, and their ability to perform a wide variety missions, to both the Governor and the DOD.  If they aren't prepared to fully respond to emergencies or other State requirements, they are obligated to make this known as well, both to the Governor and the DOD.

With this background, the calamity in New Orleans reveals some key deficiencies:

1. The US is incapable of evacuating more than 50% of even a medium size city with 48 hours notice.  Evacuation plans do not take into account those who cannot evacuate themselves.  It is imperative that public transportation resources, school busses for example, are programmed and ready to support urban evacuations. 

2. We need to quit lying to ourselves about the term 'mandatory evacuation.'   By definition if you're not forced to leave under a 'mandatory evacuation notice'—it's voluntary.  If emergency managers and officials establish evacuation criteria and guidelines—follow them.

3. Stores that sell firearms must secure weapons in a hardened arms room facility prior to evacuation to prevent looters from becoming well armed insurrectionists and anarchists.

4. Emergency management plans that work and have been tested [not just paper—drilled] must be in place.  Materials must be pre—positioned and ready to be pushed forward. New Orleans shows that a lot of that preparation was not done and not capable of being done with 48 hours notice.  Compare that to the readiness of Houston to house the displaced persons in the Astrodome. With the same 48 hours notification—they were ready to house upwards of 15,000 people with cots, medical care, nurseries and heavy security along with back—up systems. That's a result of doing, not talking and hoping.

5. 'Shelters' are nothing more than disasters waiting to happen if not planned and resourced to be shelters.  Twelve hours after power went out at the SuperDome, the people were on the verge of rioting.  Sanitation collapsed, with no ventilation and air conditioning.  People were allowed to go out of the Dome for fresh air.  Now — imagine a disaster where fresh air is not an option. 

6. Shelters must remain connected to the outside world for information: public address systems and satellite links for public information must be made available.  Sanitation has to be planned for, with chemical toilets and pre—positioned disposal capability. Electrical failures must be anticipated for large shelters and back—up power systems installed.

7. Local government must have an alternate emergency management command post that allows key leaders to lead and be present on—scene.  Command posts must be located at a secure site with a variety of communications means, back—up power, and supplied for 30—days of operation. 

8. After 9—11, we knew we had communications problems and we still do; the Mayor of New Orleans had little idea what his state government was doing for his city. That indicates the lack of a hard—wired reliable command and control infrastructure within the state.

9. Our transportation infrastructure has serious vulnerabilities; bridges, tunnels, and other choke points.  Major arteries in and out of New Orleans are down and the city is largely cut off by land from the rest of the country.  New Orleans isn't the only city with those characteristics—note the tunnels and bridges around NYC.  Cities that can be cut off by water need to ensure that disaster plans include use of boats and aircraft for transport in and out of the city after a disaster.

10. New Orleans is not the only city that is sited in a potential catastrophic natural disaster zone. We have cities built astride major earthquake fault lines, others in volcanic zones and of course others subject to terrorist targeting.  As a nation we cannot gamble with the citizenry and rely on the vagaries of the leadership, planning and preparedness capabilities of local and state authorities.  Various forms of emergency exercises are routinely conducted across America in venues from local to national level. But we require an integrated national planning system that mandates minimum planning and preparedness standards that are routinely inspected, revised, updated and exercised.

After disaster occurs:

1. If some form of 'martial law' declaration is made, you have to be ready to use lethal force and do it.

2. Both the National Guard and the active duty military components must have immediate response forces already identified in the event of national emergencies across the six FEMA regions.  This system must be improved and expanded with at least an identified brigade—sized reaction force, elements of which are on an 18—hour deployment status for immediate on—scene rescue, law enforcement support, stability and initial critical relief aid; not simply for the slow, long—term recovery mission.  Military forces must be quickly inserted into the disaster zones with early—entry command posts, communications and sustainment packages among others. The standard should be to have military forces arriving on scene within 12 hours.

3. The National Guard Bureau must form a natural disaster reaction response system, identifying and placing on alert status and subject to short—notice recall National Guard resources from other states.  (The costs of which would be refunded by FEMA to those states on alert status.)  Emergency Management Assistance Compacts are too ad hoc for a national response system. Military, legal and governmental presence must be on—scene as soon as the disaster lifts.  This requires pre—positioned and marshaled forces, aviation assets, planning, training and drills. To the extent that a state National Guard is not capable of doing this, for reasons of weather, risk, readiness or availability of forces, then other guard and active duty military forces should be identified within the response system and ready to deploy.  We need a DOD—wide reporting system that monitors this response capability.

4. Mobilized state and local police resources — including out—of—state police forces —— should be ready to go forward immediately to augment the affected areas.  Ideally they should move concurrently with military forces.

Facing Facts

More will be learned in the coming months from the New Orleans disaster.  But let's face facts:

First, the ecological and climatologic risk that New Orleans has faced for generations was well understood by scientists, engineers, political and civic leaders, and the citizenry—like Harrah's on Canal Street, it was a hope and a prayer and big throw of the dice. And the City lost.  We cannot allow this sort of thing to happen again, anywhere in the US.

Second, elected officials are just that—elected.  They are not necessarily trained to handle major disasters.  We must move beyond the on—the—job training mode.  We need a mandatory, national and systematic crisis management training program for our city and state officials. 

Finally, the federal government cannot wait for state authorities to step into the breach and then react to requests for support.  Our national government's focus should not be merely to support state and local governments when natural or man—made catastrophes are of such scope that they demolish any standing plan.  The DOD mindset should be that a major hurricane is like an invading army, and the Pentagon must develop a contingency force plan to counter—attack.

LTC Joseph C. Myers is the Senior Army Advisor to the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell AFB.  He has spent much of his career with US Southern Command and has served as an exercise planner and coordinator for peacekeeping and disaster relief operations.

The disaster in New Orleans seems unimaginable to all of us, and personally disconcerting to me as a former resident and Tulane University graduate.  I return annually to the Big Easy, my favorite city in the USA, and seeing it under water and knowing the trauma being borne by the good people of New Orleans, friends and acquaintances alike, is heart—wrenching.

But now, as a nation, we cannot just feel sorry for ourselves. We also must focus on fixing the problems in our catastrophe planning—and—preparation system.  But first, let's understand a very important point.

The terrorists are watching our response.  They are identifying new vulnerabilities —— and they are unlikely to give us 96 to 48 hours' warning before conducting a weapon of mass destruction attack.  Katrina is as close a drill to a nuclear weapon event as we could ever hope to exercise. 

Bottom Line:  Our federal crisis planning and response system is too reactive, and too oriented on responding to support requests from state and local officials.  It must be made more pro—active, directive and placed at the trigger—pull ready.

How Bush 41 Did It

One lesson I thought we had learned from Hurricane Andrew is that after a major disaster, the local and even state governmental system can become rapidly overwhelmed and paralyzed.  It is a near certainty that local government and police will be in a 'not mission capable' status.  Therefore the early entry of military forces with other state and local police forces marshaled into the destroyed zones is imperative, not only to stabilize the situation, but to show citizens that their government still stands and they haven't been abandoned.    During the week after Andrew struck, as the local circumstances deteriorated, the first Bush administration realized — almost too late — that it needed to mobilize a robust military force and put it into the affected area.  The 10th Mountain Division was deployed and rapidly established command and control, logistics support and — just as important — established a flow of information to local citizens critical to bringing comfort and hope to traumatized communities.

We fell short of this standard in New Orleans.

After 9—11, the Department of Defense reorganized and created the US Northern Command.  Its mission is to plan, organize, and execute homeland defense against foreign invasion as well as domestic military and terrorist threats, and to and coordinate Department of Defense (DOD) activities in support to civil authorities.  With a ready staff and interagency partners, NORTHCOM has established an excellent planning and exercise capability for natural or man—made catastrophes.   Ironically, it was only last month that the new joint publication for 'Homeland Security,' was published that details NORTHCOM's  and the DOD's roles in just these missions.

But we are a federal republic, so the President and national agencies work to support state and local officials—not to usurp them or "take over."   We expect our local and state governments to govern and manage their polities, their policies and programs; to plan and prepare for crises and to continue governing.  Indeed Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5 states clearly:

'The Federal Government recognizes the roles and responsibilities of State and local authorities in domestic incident management. Initial responsibility for managing domestic incidents generally falls on State and local authorities. The Federal Government will assist State and local authorities when their resources are overwhelmed, or when Federal interests are involved.'

Consequently Presidential declarations of emergency provide legal authority for the national government to spend money and release national resources, such as the armed forces, and provide 'all necessary support' to support, rather than to supplant, state and local civil authorities. It's the state and local government that bear the burden of requesting support, and of identifying requirements, and they are expected to provide direction for response in coordination and with the help of national agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). 

The FEMA mission is to coordinate relief efforts of the federal government with state and local officials.  It is not a 'first responder' organization, but supports first responders, rescue and recovery with the assistance of DoD resources.

How the Guard Works

The National Guards of the 50 states —— the state militias —— are under the command of the state governors, who exercise their authority through the State Adjutant Generals. National Guard units are first readied and tasked to perform missions in support of their state civil authorities, and are legally entitled to perform law enforcement tasks. Only when federalized by Presidential directive do Guard commanders become active duty forces that can respond to national emergencies at home and abroad. 

Adjutant Generals are obliged to report their status, and their ability to perform a wide variety missions, to both the Governor and the DOD.  If they aren't prepared to fully respond to emergencies or other State requirements, they are obligated to make this known as well, both to the Governor and the DOD.

With this background, the calamity in New Orleans reveals some key deficiencies:

1. The US is incapable of evacuating more than 50% of even a medium size city with 48 hours notice.  Evacuation plans do not take into account those who cannot evacuate themselves.  It is imperative that public transportation resources, school busses for example, are programmed and ready to support urban evacuations. 

2. We need to quit lying to ourselves about the term 'mandatory evacuation.'   By definition if you're not forced to leave under a 'mandatory evacuation notice'—it's voluntary.  If emergency managers and officials establish evacuation criteria and guidelines—follow them.

3. Stores that sell firearms must secure weapons in a hardened arms room facility prior to evacuation to prevent looters from becoming well armed insurrectionists and anarchists.

4. Emergency management plans that work and have been tested [not just paper—drilled] must be in place.  Materials must be pre—positioned and ready to be pushed forward. New Orleans shows that a lot of that preparation was not done and not capable of being done with 48 hours notice.  Compare that to the readiness of Houston to house the displaced persons in the Astrodome. With the same 48 hours notification—they were ready to house upwards of 15,000 people with cots, medical care, nurseries and heavy security along with back—up systems. That's a result of doing, not talking and hoping.

5. 'Shelters' are nothing more than disasters waiting to happen if not planned and resourced to be shelters.  Twelve hours after power went out at the SuperDome, the people were on the verge of rioting.  Sanitation collapsed, with no ventilation and air conditioning.  People were allowed to go out of the Dome for fresh air.  Now — imagine a disaster where fresh air is not an option. 

6. Shelters must remain connected to the outside world for information: public address systems and satellite links for public information must be made available.  Sanitation has to be planned for, with chemical toilets and pre—positioned disposal capability. Electrical failures must be anticipated for large shelters and back—up power systems installed.

7. Local government must have an alternate emergency management command post that allows key leaders to lead and be present on—scene.  Command posts must be located at a secure site with a variety of communications means, back—up power, and supplied for 30—days of operation. 

8. After 9—11, we knew we had communications problems and we still do; the Mayor of New Orleans had little idea what his state government was doing for his city. That indicates the lack of a hard—wired reliable command and control infrastructure within the state.

9. Our transportation infrastructure has serious vulnerabilities; bridges, tunnels, and other choke points.  Major arteries in and out of New Orleans are down and the city is largely cut off by land from the rest of the country.  New Orleans isn't the only city with those characteristics—note the tunnels and bridges around NYC.  Cities that can be cut off by water need to ensure that disaster plans include use of boats and aircraft for transport in and out of the city after a disaster.

10. New Orleans is not the only city that is sited in a potential catastrophic natural disaster zone. We have cities built astride major earthquake fault lines, others in volcanic zones and of course others subject to terrorist targeting.  As a nation we cannot gamble with the citizenry and rely on the vagaries of the leadership, planning and preparedness capabilities of local and state authorities.  Various forms of emergency exercises are routinely conducted across America in venues from local to national level. But we require an integrated national planning system that mandates minimum planning and preparedness standards that are routinely inspected, revised, updated and exercised.

After disaster occurs:

1. If some form of 'martial law' declaration is made, you have to be ready to use lethal force and do it.

2. Both the National Guard and the active duty military components must have immediate response forces already identified in the event of national emergencies across the six FEMA regions.  This system must be improved and expanded with at least an identified brigade—sized reaction force, elements of which are on an 18—hour deployment status for immediate on—scene rescue, law enforcement support, stability and initial critical relief aid; not simply for the slow, long—term recovery mission.  Military forces must be quickly inserted into the disaster zones with early—entry command posts, communications and sustainment packages among others. The standard should be to have military forces arriving on scene within 12 hours.

3. The National Guard Bureau must form a natural disaster reaction response system, identifying and placing on alert status and subject to short—notice recall National Guard resources from other states.  (The costs of which would be refunded by FEMA to those states on alert status.)  Emergency Management Assistance Compacts are too ad hoc for a national response system. Military, legal and governmental presence must be on—scene as soon as the disaster lifts.  This requires pre—positioned and marshaled forces, aviation assets, planning, training and drills. To the extent that a state National Guard is not capable of doing this, for reasons of weather, risk, readiness or availability of forces, then other guard and active duty military forces should be identified within the response system and ready to deploy.  We need a DOD—wide reporting system that monitors this response capability.

4. Mobilized state and local police resources — including out—of—state police forces —— should be ready to go forward immediately to augment the affected areas.  Ideally they should move concurrently with military forces.

Facing Facts

More will be learned in the coming months from the New Orleans disaster.  But let's face facts:

First, the ecological and climatologic risk that New Orleans has faced for generations was well understood by scientists, engineers, political and civic leaders, and the citizenry—like Harrah's on Canal Street, it was a hope and a prayer and big throw of the dice. And the City lost.  We cannot allow this sort of thing to happen again, anywhere in the US.

Second, elected officials are just that—elected.  They are not necessarily trained to handle major disasters.  We must move beyond the on—the—job training mode.  We need a mandatory, national and systematic crisis management training program for our city and state officials. 

Finally, the federal government cannot wait for state authorities to step into the breach and then react to requests for support.  Our national government's focus should not be merely to support state and local governments when natural or man—made catastrophes are of such scope that they demolish any standing plan.  The DOD mindset should be that a major hurricane is like an invading army, and the Pentagon must develop a contingency force plan to counter—attack.

LTC Joseph C. Myers is the Senior Army Advisor to the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell AFB.  He has spent much of his career with US Southern Command and has served as an exercise planner and coordinator for peacekeeping and disaster relief operations.