The department didn't activate a section of the National Response Plan that deals specifically with responding to catastrophes, DHS spokesman Russ Knocke confirmed this week. The section -- called the Catastrophic Incident Annex -- is tucked deep within the 426-page plan, which was published last December.
The NRP is the blueprint for how federal, state and local governments will respond to disasters. According to standard NRP protocols, state and local governments are in charge of responding to a disaster. The federal government provides assistance only when asked.
The Catastrophic Incident Annex, however, gives the federal government special powers, including the ability to bypass state governments. But Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff or one of his designees has to approve use of the annex.
That was not done during Hurricane Katrina. Instead, the federal government and state of Louisiana got caught up in negotiations over what kind of federal assistance would be provided in the first few days after the storm hit, while thousands of people were stranded in New Orleans and others died in hospitals, nursing homes and their houses.
Knocke said the catastrophic annex did not apply to Hurricane Katrina.
"The annex is intended to be used during no-notice catastrophic incidents when there is no awareness of an impending disaster and no pre-staging of people, resources and response forces," Knocke said. "During Katrina, the FEMA director was on scene days in advance, coordinating preparations, resources and response activities -- before [the storm] hit."
Michael Brown -- who was director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency when the hurricane hit - said the process at the state level was "dysfunctional." Brown told Congress last month that he was trying to convince Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco to "federalize" the response to Hurricane Katrina, but the governor rejected his offer. Brown resigned Sept. 12 under mounting criticism of how FEMA handled the response to the hurricane.
The catastrophic annex outlines how the federal government can rapidly deploy "key essential resources" such as medical teams, urban search and rescue teams, transportable shelters, medical supplies, food and water, without the state's request.
At a Sept. 27 hearing, Brown told a special House committee investigating the government's response to Katrina that the federal government took over the response to Katrina the third day after the storm hit. "We federalized this operation without federalizing it," he said.
Chertoff declared Katrina an "incident of national significance" on Aug. 30, but never activated the catastrophic section of the NRP. Chertoff is scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House committee.
"Our members want to ask the secretary what his specific role is in a disaster like this," said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the committee's chairman. "What was his personal involvement before, during and after the storm?"
Retired Adm. James Loy, former DHS deputy secretary and now a senior counselor to the Cohen Group in Washington, told Government Executive he believes that lives could have been saved had the catastrophic annex been implemented. Loy, who helped draft the NRP, said the annex was specifically written to deal with situations where state and local governments are overwhelmed.
"I believe this was less about the efficacy of the plan and more about the lack of execution of the plan," Loy said.
Loy said Brown was responsible for educating federal, state and local officials about the NRP. He said there appeared to be a lack of understanding of the plan at all levels, adding that "a dramatic lesson" from Hurricane Katrina is going to be clarifying how and when the catastrophic annex is used.
"The National Response Plan never had a chance to 'crawl before you walk, or walk before you run.' Rather, it was thrust into this super tragedy," Loy said. "We as a nation certainly cannot afford to have 48 hours or 72 hours go by where you are sorting that stuff out."
Despite the problems, Loy said he believes the NRP is a solid plan.
Debate has erupted in Washington and in states across the country, however, concerning what authorities the federal government should have in responding to disasters.
Some lawmakers say the federal government should have a greater and faster role in responding to disasters. President Bush told the nation during a televised address from New Orleans Sept. 15 that Hurricane Katrina showed the need for "greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces."
The Pentagon is now reviewing whether changes should be made to the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits active-duty military forces from performing domestic law enforcement operations. The Pentagon is also developing a proposal to organize a specially trained and equipped active-duty force that could respond quickly to assist relief efforts in the event of overwhelming natural disasters, the New York Times reported last week.
The National Governors Association, however, came out Tuesday with strong objections to federalizing emergency response. The organization said governors are in the best position to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters.
"Following the tragedies inflicted on the citizens of the Gulf Coast by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, local, state and federal government must examine the way the three levels of government communicate and coordinate their response," NGA said in a statement.
Several governors weighed in separately with objections.
"I can say with certainty that federalizing emergency response to catastrophic events would be a disaster as bad as Hurricane Katrina," said Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. "Just as all politics are local, so are all disasters. The most effective response is one that starts at the local level and grows with the support of surrounding communities, the state and then the federal government."