Poor communications slowed military's hurricane response

Where was the cavalry? As the bodies were pulled from Louisiana nursing homes and hospitals, and as the nation began to contemplate the detritus of Hurricane Katrina, the question was really uttered more like a recrimination. And in a nation understandably proud of having the best and most powerful military in the world, everyone knows exactly who the cavalry is.

"My biggest mistake is having a fundamental assumption that ... in the country of the United States, that can move whole fleets of aircraft carriers across the globe in 24 hours -- that my fundamental assumption was to get as many people to safety as possible, and that the cavalry would be coming within two to three days," embattled New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said on NBC's Meet the Press. "And they didn't come."

Although disaster response is not the Defense Department's primary role or mission, in times of catastrophic destruction or breakdown in civil authority, the country has always leaned heavily on the military as the rescuer of last resort. That was true after hurricanes Camille in 1969 and Andrew in 1992, after the San Francisco earthquake in 1989, and during the race riots of the 1960s. It was doubly true in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when, in anticipation of a terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. government undertook its largest reorganization since World War II. The driving purpose behind creation of the mammoth Department of Homeland Security -- and of the Pentagon's homeland defense counterpart, the U.S. Northern Command -- was to better anticipate, defend against, and respond to catastrophic events, or what government jargon calls "incidents of national consequence."

So, where was the cavalry? The answers to that question are unlikely to provide solace to anyone looking for easy solutions or obvious scapegoats in what seemed an agonizingly slow response to Katrina from Homeland Security and from the military. The conclusion of the many post-Katrina investigations now under way is likely to be that in a time of mass chaos -- just as Iraqis found in the spring and summer of 2003 -- even the world's best military cannot instantly and simultaneously stop the looting, restore order, transport mountains of supplies, and repair badly damaged infrastructure in a place approximating a war zone.

"Given that the tsunami killed 150,000 people [in Southeast Asia], I frankly think we responded pretty well to a storm that might have done the same, given the density of the population in the area where it hit," said James Carafano, a homeland-security expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "Essentially, Katrina was a nuclear bomb without a mushroom cloud or radiation."

Indeed, above all else was the storm, a monster of nature that cut a swath of destruction roughly the size of Great Britain, flooded a major city, reduced whole counties to splinters, and hurled boats into the tops of trees 5 miles inland.

"Camille in 1969 was supposed to be the storm of the century, and Hurricane Andrew was the worst in recent memory -- and Katrina dwarfed both of them," Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told National Journal. Just back from a trip to the region, Blum recalled roads in Mississippi 8 miles inland where he could clearly see the high-water mark from the storm surge at 20 feet above the ground.

If the full force of Katrina had hit New Orleans, instead of the Mississippi coast, 100,000 people could have died, Blum said. As it was, the affected region was "plunged back 200 years, to a time when there were no cellphones, no television or radio, and no electricity. I saw antebellum homes that had withstood 150 years of storms on the Gulf Coast, and all that was left was their foundations and a few steps. The rest was gone. Gone."

Lack of Imagination

Given the well-documented vulnerability of New Orleans to catastrophic flooding, officials up and down the chain of command showed a lack of imagination in failing to appreciate the nature of the threat, and they were thus slow to respond. Mayor Nagin of New Orleans failed to implement the city's own plans to use its buses to evacuate as many as 125,000 residents who lacked cars, and he didn't order a mandatory evacuation until less than 24 hours before Katrina raged ashore. The governors of Louisiana and Mississippi called up National Guard units just days before landfall; and, grossly underestimating the severity of the threat, they initially activated a total of only about 8,000 troops. The crisis would ultimately require a force of more than 66,000 active-duty and Guard forces. National Guard officials say that 8,000 troops were needed in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, which government officials were using as the benchmark for the response to Katrina.

After reports surfaced that Louisiana's Democratic governor, Kathleen Blanco, had resisted Bush administration proposals to "federalize" the rescue effort, state officials were livid. "We wanted soldiers, helicopters, food, and water," Denise Bottcher, the governor's press secretary, told a reporter on September 5. The feds "wanted to negotiate an organizational chart." New Orleans's Nagin was equally incensed. "We're still fighting over authority," he told reporters the same day. "A bunch of people are the boss. The state and the federal government are doing a two-step dance."

The bickering caused some experts to question the traditional "tiered" disaster-response system adopted by DHS in its National Response Plan, in which federal officials are instructed to respond and react to specific requests by local and state officials. That system seemed inadequate in the face of a catastrophe that quickly swamped regional capabilities and overwhelmed local authorities.

"Federal response is designed so assistance flows through the state and local governments. In this case, not only did we have to backfill [state and local] forces, we had to fill their front ranks as well, because the breadth of the disaster overwhelmed first responders, making them victims as well," Peter Varga, principal deputy secretary of Defense for homeland defense, told The Wall Street Journal.

Frank Cilluffo directs the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. He says that although early "federalization" of all forces in response to a catastrophic disaster may sound like an easy fix, certain overlaps in authority and responsibility at different stages in a crisis spring from the nature of the work. "The challenge with all of these issues, whether you're talking about homeland defense or disaster relief, is that homeland security is a shared responsibility," Cilluffo said.

"People may want to simplify the chain of command and make one person accountable, but under our federal system," Cilluffo continued, "responsibility starts at the local level and works its way up from the bottom. And unless you are willing to quickly federalize police, firefighters, and other first responders in a crisis, and re-examine the Constitution and the federalist system that has been embedded in our ethos since 1776, we may have to live with that fact. In the meantime, the sad truth is that the terrorists are likely looking at our response to Katrina and taking notes. As bad as Mother Nature is, she doesn't intentionally plan to kill people."

A Passive Response

Lacking specific requests or clear guidance from Homeland Security and FEMA, Northern Command adopted what observers have called an overly passive posture. The military deployed some assets to the region, but scheduled most of them to arrive many days after Katrina had passed. That reticence may partly have been the result of U.S. military commanders' instincts and training to stay in the background and take only a supporting role in domestic operations. Indeed, that reticence is enshrined in the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which bars the active military from performing law enforcement functions within the United States. (When National Guard troops serve under state authority, they are not bound by Posse Comitatus -- one of the reasons Gov. Blanco resisted federalization.)

The military's response also partly reflects, some experts say, a deep ambivalence on the part of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and some senior military leaders about taking on a homeland-security and disaster-response mission that they see as an unwelcome drain on U.S. military forces and budgets that are already stretched thin by the war on terrorism.

"With no debate in Congress or directive from the White House, the Pentagon has narrowly defined its role as 'homeland defense' against an enemy attack from outside the United States, limiting its role in disaster response to a last-resort backfill for civil authorities," said Stephen Flynn, a homeland-security expert and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Not surprisingly, that philosophy dictates a very passive posture."

Rumsfeld has directed, for instance, that any aid request from the Homeland Security Department must go through the Office of the Secretary of Defense before it is passed to Northern Command, though he relaxed that requirement shortly before Katrina made landfall.

"Rumsfeld wants that firewall between Northern Command and DHS because he's legitimately afraid that otherwise, Congress will rob the Defense budget to pay for homeland-security initiatives," said Flynn, author of America the Vulnerable. "The problem with that approach is that it provides no incentives for senior NorthCom leaders to build relationships with mayors and governors around the country, closely studying what capabilities they have and exactly what kind of help they would need in a disaster."

By contrast, Coast Guard helicopters were rescuing survivors just a few hours after Katrina hit the coast. A unique military service with law enforcement powers, the Coast Guard reports to Homeland Security instead of Defense and works directly with local authorities in coastal states. "We're not bound by posse comitatus, there's no checklist that says you have to call Washington, and they're not waiting for anyone to ask for help," said retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. John Tozzi. "When the commander on scene sees his assets are needed, he simply deploys them" and worries about interagency coordination later. The Coast Guard had 4,000 personnel in place by September 1 -- and still had 4,000 there 10 days later. A fraction of the size of the Defense Department, the Coast Guard could respond faster but maxed out faster as well.

A Failure to Communicate

Perhaps the single greatest impediment to a faster military response to Katrina was the nearly total destruction of the communications network in the entire Gulf Coast region. Land lines, cellphone towers, and electric power lines were all down. That communications void greatly complicated the military's doctrine of centralized command and decentralized operations. While military units could still talk to one another over tactical radios, they could not communicate with police, firefighters, or victims on the ground, or with civil authorities scattered at various command posts in the rear.

The effect was like trying to hit a pinata with a blindfold on, said Gen. Blum, and the result was that the all-important "situational awareness" of the entire destroyed area was agonizingly slow to develop.

"The real crux of the problem, and the no-kidding lesson learned, was the absolute need for reliable communications and unity of effort in these major disaster-relief operations -- and the two are closely related," Blum said. "With good communications, you can have decentralized operations that draw synergy from everyone's efforts, and that's how we were postured before the storm hit. And then when we needed it the most, we lost all our communications connections."

Suddenly, military commanders couldn't distribute resources, supplies, and troops to achieve the desired effect, Blum said, because they didn't know where the greatest need was. Everybody who had a role in the rescue and recovery efforts got frustrated. "We were in the middle of a crisis, there was a lot of emotion and adrenaline flowing, and people started worrying about who was at fault and who was in charge. We lost our unity of effort, and that was not helpful," he said. "We didn't move fast enough to co-locate our forces with the civil authorities. But when we did -- almost like getting together in a football huddle -- we saw a magnificent improvement in our ability to coordinate and synchronize our rescue efforts. At that moment, it started to turn into a very good partnership again."

So by September 4, six days after Katrina made landfall, 35,000 National Guard troops from several states were on the ground, already outstripping the previous record deployment of 32,000 guardsmen for the San Francisco earthquake of 1989. By the bitter anniversary of September 11, an impressive 50,000 guardsmen and 20,000 active-duty troops were on the ground in the stricken area -- albeit still under a divided command, some under federal control and some under the states. Late as it may be, there is plenty of cavalry now.

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