September 8, 2005
Lessons not learned before Katrina hitBy LTC Joseph C. Myers
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:
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:
After disaster occurs:
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.