The AP reported Sunday on new Katrina-related documents released by the Senate HSGAC in the course of its investigation. The documents detail the offer of assistance to FEMA from the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the response:
Responding to a questionnaire posed by investigators, Interior Department Assistant Secretary P. Lynn Scarlett said her agency offered to supply FEMA with 300 dump trucks and other vehicles, 300 boats, 11 aircraft and 400 law enforcement officers to help search and rescue efforts.
“Although the department possesses significant resources that could have improved initial and ongoing response, many of these resources were not effectively incorporated into the federal response to Hurricane Katrina,” Scarlett wrote in the response, dated Nov. 7.
Scarlett added: “Although we attempted to provide these assets through the process established by the [National Response Plan], we were unable to efficiently integrate and deploy those resources.”
At one point, Scarlett’s letter said, FEMA asked U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to help with search and rescue in New Orleans, St. Bernard Parish and St. Tammany Parish but that the rescuers “never received task assignments.” The agency, a branch of the Interior Department, apparently went ahead anyway, according to the letter, which said that Fish and Wildlife helped rescue 4,500 people in the first week after Katrina.
Other Interior Department resources that were offered, but unused, included flat-bottom boats for shallow-water rescues. “Clearly these assets and skills were precisely relevant in the post-Katrina environment,” Scarlett wrote.
This article highlights what seems to be emerging as one of the key lessons of Katrina: the limitations of the National Response Plan, and by extension any other planning process that is top-down in its execution. This same story seems to have repeated itself dozens of time during the Katrina response: other public or private entities trying to help, and stymied by FEMA as an overwhelmed and nonresponsive bottleneck.
The reality seems to be that top-down response systems can work in limited-scale disasters, but can be overwhelmed by catastrophic disasters. Given this reality, I think there needs to be a shift toward decentralized and networked planning processes. Pre-approved participants could make their own decisions about how to allocate and use their resources during a crisis, guided not by a top-down, formal process, but using networked tools that provide real-time information on resources and needs, and backed by training regimens that focus on how to make decisions in an environment of limited information. This isn’t a foreign concept to the US government; in fact, it’s very similar to the military doctrine of net-centric warfare. This doctrine can and should inform the development of future response capabilities.
There are some potential drawbacks to this approach; for example, if the “network” failed, you could see two groups providing resources in one region and another region ignored. But inaction in this example is always a worse outcome than duplicative effort. Perhaps this is not the best approach for minor and less time-sensitive response situations, but in extreme catastrophic situations that no single institution can hope to manage, a new model is needed.
Update (1/30): The New York Times’ take on the story.