Most of the eight large video screens that make up the operation center's "wall of knowledge" were tracking the approaching storm and the U.S. government's preparation for what would become one of the worst natural disasters to strike America in modern times.
Northern Command, the Pentagon's designated force for protecting the homeland and responding to "incidents of national consequence," began deploying forces well before Katrina made landfall. It dispatched military liaison and medical planning teams to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, where they were to coordinate with Federal Emergency Management Agency field offices. As part of the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA is responsible for coordinating the federal response to hurricanes.
The Joint Operations Center went on 24-hour alert. It also established a forward command post called Joint Task Force Katrina at Camp Shelby, Miss., headed by a three-star Army general. In addition, NorthCom commanders designated staging areas in the region -- at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, Meridian Naval Air Station in Mississippi, Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, and Fort Polk in Louisiana -- for the anticipated movement of relief supplies and emergency personnel.
"Because we have exercised our response to hurricanes, and actually assisted with several smaller hurricanes last year, we had a pretty good sense of the kinds of help that would be needed, and we essentially pre-positioned it in the region in advance so that we could react quicker when FEMA called," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Sean Kelly, a Northern Command spokesman. "So while the military has always brought a lot of capabilities to the table in terms of disaster relief, NorthCom acts as a single stop for those seeking help in a crisis."
Ironically, it was not the prospect of natural disasters that led to the creation of Northern Command in 2002, along with the Homeland Security Department. It was the threat of future terrorist attacks like those of September 11, 2001, or even worse, that prompted the U.S. military to assume a more prominent domestic role than ever before in its modern history. Northern Command is the physical embodiment of that larger military presence on the American scene.
As Hurricane Katrina and the catastrophic flooding of New Orleans illustrate, however, some natural disasters can wreak havoc on a scale that quickly overwhelms local and state authorities. In such civil emergencies, the U.S. military has traditionally been asked to contribute its unique capabilities in terms of command-and-control, communications, air- and sealift, search-and-rescue, emergency medical response, and sheer manpower. Since the establishment of Northern Command, however, the Pentagon no longer offers such assistance ad hoc, or as an afterthought to the military's primary mission of fighting wars. As one of the Pentagon's joint, unified commands headed by a four-star flag officer, Northern Command has meticulously planned for homeland-defense and disaster-relief missions and held exercises. In July 2004, for instance, the command participated in a training exercise that simulated how to respond to a Category 3 hurricane striking New Orleans and producing a storm surge that crested the city's protective levees and killed thousands.
During a crisis, often the first question asked of NorthCom, a relatively new command, is the most fundamental and difficult of them all. "The first question we have to ask and answer, along with all the agencies we work with, is, Who is in charge?" said Navy Capt. Brad Johanson, chief of NorthCom's Joint Operations Center. If it's a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, FEMA is the lead agency, with Northern Command in support. In a wildfire, the Agriculture Department will typically take the lead, through its National Interagency Fire Center. In the case of a terrorist infiltration where military assets are helping to monitor the situation, the FBI will usually be in charge.
"On the other hand," Johanson said, "a homeland-defense event such as a catastrophic attack using weapons of mass destruction would likely be NorthCom's primary responsibility, because we have a lot of unique capabilities in that regard. We know where that equipment and capability is, we know where it would need to go, and we have the means to get it there fast. And until you practice these scenarios, and see how a situation can escalate and evolve, with the lead-agency role shifting over time, it's hard to know who does what to whom, and when."
To sort out the complex and shifting command arrangements, and to smooth over the various seams between agencies tasked with responding to disasters, the Homeland Security Department created the exhaustive National Response Plan, which runs to hundreds of pages. In the event of a terrorist attack involving nuclear weapons or a radiological "dirty bomb," for instance, the plan envisions DHS providing overall federal guidance and designating the Defense and Energy departments, among others, as likely "coordinating" bodies to manage the federal response.
In anticipation of its new responsibilities, Northern Command even developed the first war plans for thwarting and responding to terror attacks in the United States. Those classified plans posit 15 crisis scenarios of escalating consequence, and NorthCom's likely response to each. The scenarios range from relatively minor attacks requiring "crowd control" support activities, all the way to catastrophic attacks using weapons of mass destruction that completely overwhelm civil authorities and, in some cases, require the Northern Command to take the lead in organizing a response.
Navy Adm. Timothy Keating, the head of Northern Command, caused a small controversy when he recently told The Washington Post that at the high end of that threat spectrum, he envisioned Northern Command taking the lead in managing an incident that involved weapons of mass destruction. "In my estimation, [in the event of] a biological, a chemical, or a nuclear attack in any of the 50 states, the Department of Defense is best positioned -- of the various eight federal agencies that would be involved -- to take the lead," Keating told The Post.
Given acute sensitivities about military operations on U.S. soil, and given the provisions of the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the U.S. military (although not the National Guard) from engaging in law enforcement activities, Keating's comments caused a stir. Almost immediately following their publication, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff reminded the Pentagon that under presidential directive, he had federal responsibility to "prepare for, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies."
The important principle of a clear chain of command is at stake in this back-and-forth, experts say. Retired Coast Guard Adm. James Loy, the former deputy secretary of Homeland Security, helped to craft the National Response Plan.
"It's extremely important that we bring clarity to this question of 'who's in charge' long in advance of an actual crisis, or else the potential for chaos and delay on the scene will be very real if, God forbid, we are actually confronted by one of these nightmare scenarios. So this is not an abstract argument," said Loy, who is now a senior counselor for the Cohen Group in Washington. "While the Defense Department will have the legal responsibility to assist civil authorities, when requested, in the event of a serious crisis -- and indeed has resources, troops, and capabilities that no other agency can duplicate -- the new rubric outlined in the National Response Plan clearly identifies the secretary of Homeland Security as the guy at the top making judgments about how the federal government will respond."
One cause for the confusion may be Northern Command's dual roles in "homeland defense" and "homeland security." In the former, more narrowly defined role, Northern Command is directly responsible (along with its sister agency NORAD, or the North American Aerospace Defense Command) for repelling an enemy attack on the United States via air, land, or sea. In that case, Northern Command's chain of command goes directly up through the secretary of Defense to the president.
In the broader realm of "homeland security," which primarily involves the federal government's preparation for and response to terrorist attacks or other major disasters, Northern Command is one of many entities that fall under the tasking of DHS.
"Northern Command's mission to protect the homeland against foreign threats is separate and distinct from its mission to provide support to civil agencies in the event of a terrorist attack of catastrophic proportions," said David Heyman, director of the Homeland Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "So part of the confusion you're seeing is the natural shaking-out process as the Defense Department stands up a new command and adopts a new mission that most generals assumed with great reluctance in the first place, given that their forces and budgets were already stretched thin. In that sense, Admiral Keating's comments were probably less about someone gunning to take the lead, and more a reflection of how much support Northern Command will likely be asked to provide in the event of a real catastrophe."
The vast destruction left in Hurricane Katrina's wake illustrates just how heavily civil authorities have to rely on U.S. military forces in truly catastrophic circumstances. As of August 31, Northern Command had dispatched or readied eight Navy ships, including the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group out of Virginia and the amphibious ship USS Bataan out of Texas, both capable of helicopter operations. Relief supplies under way include providing an estimated 1.5 million Meals Ready to Eat, the field staple of the U.S. military.
Preparations were also under way to send the hospital ship USS Comfort from Baltimore on September 2, as well as a 500-bed mobile hospital. And Air Force C-5 cargo planes were flying lead elements of eight civil swift-boat rescue teams from California. Roughly 50 Air Force and Army helicopter crews were already on the scene or getting under way to conduct search-and-rescue missions. The Army Corps of Engineers was trying to plug levees and flood walls breached by the storm surge. With both Louisiana and Mississippi having sent significant numbers of their National Guard troops to Iraq, Northern Command directed Guard units from other states to help fill the gap.
In the process, NorthCom officials have walked a fine line between offering timely support, and tempering the ingrained military ethos to take charge in a crisis. "It's essential that we at Northern Command not be overbearing or overstep our responsibilities," said Mal Johnson, chief of interagency coordination at Northern Command. "That said, we can't just sit back passively and wait until someone asks for our help. We have to look ahead and anticipate what kind of assistance we'll most likely be asked to provide, so that we can reduce our response time and be an aggressive supporter. And that means understanding each individual agency's role, strengths, and capabilities. As we say in this business, it's too late to make a friend when you need one."