Haiti response effort brings lessons from Katrina

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the United States launched the most sweeping reorganization of the federal government in half a century, in part to help harden the homeland against another attack and to better coordinate response to a future disaster. The government's initial, fumbling response in 2005 to Hurricane Katrina -- the costliest and one of the deadliest storms in U.S. history -- indicated just how much work remained.

When the after-action reviews of the recent catastrophic earthquake in Haiti are finally written, the tragedy will likely prove another major milestone in gauging U.S. disaster response. For an early preview, National Journal spoke with the man tasked with salvaging the Katrina operation and an insider during the Haiti crisis, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen. Edited excerpts from that interview follow.

NJ: Do you see any similarities in the challenges presented by Hurricane Katrina and the recent Haitian earthquake?

Allen: Well, one similarity is that in both cases you lost the continuity and much of the capacity of the local governments, though there was not a total decapitation of local leadership. So as a responder you have to do everything in support of a severely weakened local government, and that can complicate things. In both cases, the local government's command-and-control capabilities and the local infrastructure were also severely damaged by the disaster, presenting a further complication.

NJ: After the flooding in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, the difficulty of determining exactly who was in charge seemed to cripple the government's initial response.

Allen: I tell everyone that in New Orleans after Katrina, we weren't dealing with a hurricane anymore, but rather the equivalent of the use of a weapon of mass effect, but without criminality. I characterize it that way because if we had been dealing with the aftermath of a terrorist attack that caused the flooding, there would have been a legal basis for the federal government to move in and take charge. In that case, the FBI would have been in charge of the investigation, and the city in effect would have been a crime scene. The entire response could have been managed under the pre-emptive authority of the federal government. In the absence of criminal or terrorist activity, however, there was no legal basis for such a pre-emption of local authority. My challenge was thus to structure the response so that the federal government was in support of the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana. On several occasions Mayor [Ray] Nagin said that I was trying to be the federal mayor of New Orleans, which couldn't have been further from the truth. I was trying to use the resources of the federal government to empower his response to the disaster.

NJ: Do you see similarities to the challenges presented by the Haitian disaster response?

Allen: I see similarities as well as significant differences. Haiti was orders of magnitude bigger, with over 100,000 casualties versus roughly 3,000 during Katrina. On the other hand, the displaced population from each disaster was roughly 1.5 million. Another similarity is the problem that, once those people were displaced, they really didn't have anything to go back to. In Haiti, of course, there was much less of an ability to absorb that population elsewhere.

NJ: Do you see similarities in the command-and-control challenges? Allen: Yes. From the very start, everything the U.S. government did had to be in support of the leaders of a sovereign Haiti. The U.S. official directly responsible for supporting the government of Haiti is Ambassador Ken Merten, as the chief of the U.S. mission there. Since ambassadors aren't necessarily experts in disaster response, resources flowed in under the auspices of USAID [the U.S. Agency for International Development]. USAID has the statutory authorities for coordinating help to foreign countries, and it immediately dispatched a senior leader to coordinate civilian U.S. support on the ground in Port-au-Prince.

Because of the scope of the disaster, the response also required a lot of capabilities that only reside in the U.S. military, to include command-and-control systems, communications, logistics, security and transport. So a Joint Task Force Haiti was established, led by the deputy commander of U.S. Southern Command, Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, and including components of all the armed forces, maritime, land and air. So you very quickly had a command structure take shape, led on the ground by Ambassador Merten as U.S. chief of mission, who was supported on the civilian side by USAID and on the military side by Joint Task Force Haiti, both of which are also on the ground in Port-au-Prince. NJ: Was such a bifurcated support structure similar to what you established after Katrina?

Allen: Yes. After Katrina, I served as the principal federal official on scene, leading the federal response in support of the mayor and governor. In turn, I was supported by Lt. Gen. Russ Honore, who led Joint Task Force Katrina for U.S. Northern Command. And of course at the top of the structure today is the government of the sovereign country of Haiti. That is also similar to cases where the federal government has to organize disaster response while respecting the authority of state and local officials.

NJ: Yet isn't an international relief effort a further complicating factor?

Allen: Absolutely. Another piece of this puzzle is a substantial United Nations mission in Haiti which has been working a host of issues there for years. The U.N. mission also suffered severe loss of personnel and its command-and-control capabilities. You have many other nations trying to flow aid to Haiti, just as you have NGOs [non-governmental organizations] on the ground in Haiti, in many cases for years. They've established relationships in the country that often make them the most effective organizations for "retail" distribution of aid to the Haitian people.

All of these actors and efforts had to be carefully choreographed so that the right commodities arrived in the right sequence, reflecting the priorities established by the Haitian government, or otherwise the pipeline of aid would have gotten clogged up.

NJ: How does that work in reality? Allen: A good example is airspace control. Early on we reached an agreement between the United States and Haiti for a U.S. military team to come in and establish air traffic control for the most efficient management of the airspace. Haiti's leaders established priorities, because this can't be seen as a U.S.-centric effort. Based on those priorities, the air traffic unit put together a daily plan allocating landing slots based on the requirements and priorities given to certain types of commodities, whether it was water, food, medical supplies, etc. Timing and sequencing was critical to that plan. If you have too many plane loads of commodities, but you lack the transport vehicles to move them, or the security forces to get them where they need to go, or the NGOs in place to distribute them, then the pipeline quickly becomes blocked. Like I said, everything has to be choreographed.

NJ: Given that USAID is not traditionally responsible for emergency disaster relief, did it make sense to name USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah as the principal official in charge of coordinating the U.S. relief effort?

Allen: In my view it worked very well. Very early on, President Obama directed all of his Cabinet secretaries to lean very far forward in helping to ensure that everything that could be done to help Haiti was done. Over several discussions I had with [Homeland Security Secretary Janet] Napolitano and [Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator W. Craig] Fugate, we decided that the best thing we could do was take our capabilities in domestic emergency response and apply them to the command structure established for Haiti.

Of course, inside the United States, FEMA is the agency coordinating and integrating a whole-of-government response to domestic disasters. So we detailed a detachment of Coast Guard and FEMA personnel over to the USAID command center in Washington, where Administrator Shah was organizing the relief effort. We also dispatched an incident management team led by a senior Coast Guard officer and FEMA official to help the USAID group in Port-au-Prince. That team bought a mobile emergency response system communication suite, which provided essential command-and-control to me during Katrina. In that way, the Department of Homeland Security became a force multiplier in support of USAID.

NJ: Didn't the Department of Homeland Security also play a role in evacuating U.S. citizens from Haiti after the earthquake?

Allen: We had already exercised a Homeland Security Task Force Southeast, with an operation plan and standing doctrine for dealing with a mass migration event like we saw with the Cuban boat lift in 1980, and two Haitian mass migrations in 1994 and 1995. At the time, we thought we might have to deal with another mass migration from Cuba in the event that Fidel Castro died.

After the earthquake in Haiti, my counsel to Director Napolitano was to activate Homeland Security Task Force Southeast and just reverse it. Instead of trying to prevent a mass migration, we surged to safely and securely evacuate U.S. citizens from Haiti. Under the organizational structure we had established for the task force, it was led by the Coast Guard admiral who commands the 7th District in Miami, it included all of the component agencies of the Department of Homeland Security, and it reported directly to Director Napolitano. When we look back on the Haiti response, I think you'll discover that Task Force Southeast successfully organized one of the largest and safest evacuations of American citizens in recent memory.

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