White House reports lessons from Katrina
Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times
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A federal lead is needed in major disasters, and the military role should be larger, according to the review that the president requested.
By NICOLE GAOUETTE
Los Angeles Times (California)
WASHINGTON — The federal government must play a stronger role in dealing with catastrophic disasters, including using the military more, the White House said Thursday in a report ordered by President Bush to study lessons from the Hurricane Katrina response.
The report, which combined a detailed reconstruction of what went wrong with more than 100 recommendations, embraced the traditional view that state and local authorities should take the lead in ordinary emergencies. But it said that in major disasters like Katrina — which swept across an area the size of Britain — only the federal government had the resources and broad authority to react effectively.
And although the solution "cannot simply be 'let the Department of Defense do it,' " the report said, the Pentagon should be used much more in future catastrophes. "The fact is that the U.S. military may be the only entity available to the federal government to protect the American people" in a disaster, said Frances Townsend, assistant to the president for domestic security and counter-terrorism, who supervised preparation of the report.
But the military will not be able to use its superior resources effectively, the report said, unless rules change to put active-duty troops and National Guard units under a unified command. After Katrina, Guard units were under state control and active-duty units were under Pentagon command. Often, the report said, neither knew what resources were available nor what the other was doing.
Townsend said the goal of the report was not to blame but to learn.
Nonetheless, the report cataloged shortcomings in the responses of local and state officials, who she said were often overwhelmed by "the worst natural disaster in U.S. history." And it insisted that state and local authorities must improve their ability to play major roles in emergencies.
"The federal government cannot and should not be the nation's first responder," it said.
But the report reserved its sharpest and most detailed criticisms for the Department of Homeland Security and other federal institutions the report said were mired in red tape, lacked clear lines of authority, and struggled with a crippled communications system that left emergency workers isolated and uninformed.
In addition, some officials refused to follow the chain of command and others were slow to assume the crucial roles assigned to them by existing emergency plans, Townsend's inquiry found.
To rectify those and other problems, the report set out an ambitious agenda for change, including a set of 11 "critical actions" to take by June 1, the start of hurricane season.
Among the immediate measures: ensuring that in a future disaster, federal, state and local decision-makers — including National Guard commanders — are brought together in one command center to avoid confusion and to speed reaction times.
The report also called for prompt steps to ensure that the federal government could quickly deploy communications equipment capable of operating under emergency conditions and of providing Homeland Security Department officials with clear, timely information about developments.
Last week, a special House committee that investigated Katrina came to similar conclusions; a Senate report expected next week is likely to do so as well. But despite a consensus on what went wrong and broad agreement on what must be done, far-reaching reforms face political, bureaucratic and budgetary obstacles.
Many proposed changes would require congressional action, for example. And turf battles are likely over some recommendations, such as a Homeland Security Department National Operations Center that the White House report proposes to replace multiple operations centers throughout the government that contributed to delays and confusion during Katrina.
Although emergency management professionals praised some of the initiatives, many questioned the idea of adding bureaucracy to a system that often foundered because of red tape.
And they said some proposals would undo changes to the Federal Emergency Management Agency made under the Bush administration.
Eric Holdeman, emergency management director for King County, Wash., said federal disaster response had gone through plenty of changes since FEMA was incorporated into Homeland Security.
"With this constant churning, it's hard to tell who's on first, who's on second," he said. "At some point we have to freeze the process and figure out what we should be doing."
Looking beyond the June 1 deadline, the report called for overhaul of almost all federal emergency response plans and systems; for improved coordination with state and local responders; and for a clear procedure for a federal takeover of control if local agencies faltered.
Greater roles should also be assigned to federal agencies outside Homeland Security, such as the Department of Health and Human Services, the report said.
For example, Health and Human Services should strengthen the federal government's ability to provide "one-stop shopping for disaster victims" in need of health services, Townsend said.
Similarly, recalling the breakdown of the law enforcement and court systems in New Orleans and elsewhere on the Gulf Coast, the report recommended that the Justice Department examine the federal responsibility to support state and local systems and create its own operational plans for emergencies.
Detailing an evacuation so hectic that evacuees boarding flights did not always know their destinations, the report said the Transportation Department should be prepared to conduct mass evacuations when disasters incapacitated local authorities.
Townsend did not say whether there would be additional funding to support the initiatives.
The report praised the military's involvement in search and rescue, security, evacuation, logistical support, and food and water distribution.
"The departments of Homeland Security and Defense should jointly plan for the Department of Defense's support of federal response activities as well as those extraordinary circumstances when it is appropriate for the Department of Defense to lead the federal response," the report said.
David Heyman, director of the domestic security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, said it was not clear what would trigger a shift in the chain of command between the military and the Department of Homeland Security.
"There's no question that the military has to be involved in incidents where they're the only federal entity with the capability, logistics support and assets," he said.
"But it's not clear what conditions would have to exist when the military's in charge and when DHS is in charge."
The White House report on lessons from Hurricane Katrina includes 11 steps to improve federal disaster response that it says must be taken before hurricane season starts June 1:
* 1. Ensure that relevant federal, state and local decision-makers, including National Guard state leaders, are working with and near one another.
* 2. Be ready to pre-position an interagency Joint Field Office, when warning allows, to coordinate and direct federal support.
* 3. Establish rapid deployable communications and a structure to consolidate federal operational reporting with the Department of Homeland Security.
* 4. Include Defense Department personnel at the Joint Field Office and FEMA regional offices to help coordinate military resources.
* 5. Designate locations nationwide for receiving, staging, moving and integrating military resources to use federal disaster resources most effectively.
* 6. Create rosters of federal, state and local government personnel prepared to assist in a disaster.
* 7. Update and use the national Emergency Alert System for disaster notification and instructions.
* 8. Encourage states to contract early for key relief services.
* 9. Streamline federal funding to states in which an emergency is imminent.
* 10. Simplify the relief process for victims: Streamline registration, speed up eligibility decisions, track displaced victims and incorporate fraud safeguards.
* 11. Improve review of state evacuation plans and ensure continuity for essential and emergency services.