Homeland Security had power to bypass states in hurricane response
The federal government has been criticized during the past week for being slow to respond to the hurricane's impact, especially with regard to the situation in New Orleans, where levees broke on Monday and Tuesday, flooding the city, killing potentially thousands and leaving tens of thousands stranded for days with no food, water or medical care.
Homeland Security officials have said in their defense that they pre-positioned resources before the hurricane struck, but had to wait for the states to request federal assistance before they could fully move into the affected regions.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Sunday that the crisis showed that the government needs a new plan to deal with "ultracatastrophes."
"I think that the lesson of this hurricane, which we will clearly look at as we go over an after-action evaluation, is going to be very valuable moving forward. This was an ultracatastrophe, but we have to be prepared even for ultracatastrophes, even things that happen once in a lifetime, or once in a generation," Chertoff said during an interview on CBS' Face the Nation.
A review of the government's National Response Plan shows that DHS has broad authority to respond to catastrophes, even if it means bypassing state and local governments. What isn't clear, however, is whether Chertoff fully utilized that power.
The 426-page plan was approved last December and put into action for the first time in response to the hurricane. The NRP includes a section, titled the "Catastrophic Incident Annex," that outlines how the government can rapidly deploy "key essential resources" during a crisis, such as medical teams, urban search and rescue teams, transportable shelters, medical supplies, food and water.
"A catastrophic incident results in large numbers of casualties and/or displaced persons, possibly in the tens of thousands," the annex states. "A detailed and credible common operating picture may not be achievable for 24 to 48 hours (or longer) after the incident. As a result, response activities must begin without the benefit of a detailed or complete situation and critical needs assessment."
"Federal support must be provided in a timely manner to save lives, prevent human suffering and mitigate severe damage," the plan adds. "This may require mobilizing and deploying assets before they are requested via normal NRP protocols."
The plan gives the Homeland Security secretary the power to bypass the traditional practice of waiting for states to ask for assistance.
"Standard procedures outlined in the NRP regarding requests for assistance may be expedited or, under extreme circumstances, temporarily suspended in the immediate aftermath of an incident of catastrophic magnitude, pursuant to existing law," the plan states. "Notification and full coordination with states occur, but the coordination process should not delay or impede the rapid mobilization and deployment of critical federal resources."
The document also states that there is a supplement to the NRP that defines specific roles and responsibilities for all federal departments and the Red Cross after a catastrophic incident. But the supplement is designated as "for official use only," and is not readily available for public review. It was developed separately from the NRP.
When asked if Chertoff exercised his catastrophic incident authority in response to Hurricane Katrina, DHS spokesman Russ Knocke said it was too early to make a determination. Knocke said the department is still focused on life-saving operations in the Gulf Coast, adding that after-action reviews will eventually be conducted.
Earlier this week, Chertoff appointed Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen as the government's point person to coordinate federal, state and local operations in New Orleans.
"We're on the ground and we're working the problem," Allen said Thursday.