Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 9, 2006

Preparing for future Katrina-class disasters

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Christian Beckner on March 9, 2006

I wrote yesterday about the HSGAC’s hearing on post-Katrina recommendations for reform, focusing my post on Sen. Collins’ opening statement and the prepared testimony from the GAO and the DHS Inspector General. In my rush to post, I only skimmed over the rest of the testimony from the hearing. But I was encouraged in a comment by Claire Rubin to go back and look at the testimony by Herman Leonard and Arnold Howitt from Harvard University, entitled “Katrina as Prelude: Preparing for and Responding to Future Katrina-Class Disturbances in the United States.”

Their testimony, which expands upon an article that they wrote for the Fletcher Journal of World Affairs, takes a refreshingly honest look at the challenges of preparedness and response. For example, they note early in their testimony that for all of our hand-wringing about the efficacy of the response, the bottom-line reality might be that the United States has never been prepared for a catastrophe of this magnitude:

The inescapable reality is that the United States – its governmental units and its society as a whole – is not now and never has been prepared adequately to deal with a disaster of the scale of Hurricane Katrina. Given the pre-existing conditions of preparation in the nation and in the region – infrastructure, capabilities, systems, and people – as of the middle of August 2005, and given what the storm was going to do, it is therefore important to realize that no one could have led the response to this storm in a way that could have produced a high performance … or even, perhaps, an adequate performance. To be sure, we could (and should) have done many things better, even starting only days before the storm hit. But even inspired leadership in the moment cannot overcome a fundamental lack of preparedness. At the local, state, and national levels, we were simply not ready – and we are still not ready – to face a cataclysm.

And they point out that while certain individuals may have failed in their responsibilities, this ultimately was a systemic failure; or perhaps not even a systemic failure, but a societal one, since the system did what is was built to do: respond to small-to-moderate disasters.

First, FEMA was not designed, resourced, or authorized to take such a role.

Second, the scale of disaster that FEMA was designed for was considerably smaller than that produced by Katrina.

Third, to the extent that FEMA had (as it had been directed to do and as it said it had done) designed a National Response Plan, the NRP was only a plan – it was not a functioning, practiced, operable system.

Fourth, the constitutional structure of the United States makes it quite difficult to construct an agency for such a role – and the infrastructure for that role had not been constructed as of the time Katrina hit.

This analysis reminds me of the Vietnam War post-mortem by Leslie Gelb and Richard Betts entitled “The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked,” which suggested, somewhat controversially, that the war’s outcome was the predictable consequence of rational strategic decisions.

The testimony also takes the long view on preparedness, noting that “it literally took centuries to make the mistakes that rolled together to make Katrina such a vast natural and human-made calamity.” It cites other examples where we might be making the same choices today:

Katrina is not a unique event in the sense of exploiting long-accumulating vulnerabilities to catastrophe – it is just the only one we have actually witnessed. Other large scale events – a major earthquake on the West Coast, for example, or a terrorist incident with a weapon of significant scale in a major city – would create stories with many of the same elements. Looking back on some other such event, we might find ourselves observing that we have planted huge amounts of value over long periods in harm’s way, failed adequately to devise or implement means to protect it, failed to create systems up to the task of dealing with the resulting catastrophe, and failed to mobilize or use those systems that we had constructed as well as we might have been able to.

How do we not, in the future, find ourselves again with those same regrets? Our work needs to begin with a judicious and honest assessment of threats, followed by investments in prevention and mitigation and by construction of response systems that will be equal to a larger class of disturbances than we have previously allowed ourselves to contemplate.

The testimony also includes a number of practical recommendations that are worth considering; for example, the adoption of the “Red Card” system from forest firefighting:

The system – known as the “Red Card” system, a reference to the color of the form on which an individual accumulates his or her professional resume – emphasizes the interplay of training, simulation, and direct experience in building leaders who can successfully occupy the key roles on an IMS team. If you do not have the red card qualifications to occupy a specific IMS role – whether it be operations chief or incident commander or logistics chief – you simply cannot occupy that role. In addition, people accumulate experience and training and red card credentials outside of the day to day hierarchy within which they function ordinarily. Thus, during a disaster, someone with more junior day to day rank may, by virtue of having developed expertise and experience as an emergency manager, have direction during an emergency over a team of technically higher-ranking officials from her or his own agency or from other agencies. During an emergency, what counts is your experience and expertise and qualifications as an emergency IMS leader – and that is all that counts.

The authors contrast this with a rigid and linear system of seniority based on rank and years of experience – the model in place at FEMA today.

There are numerous other nuggets of insight and wisdom in the testimony – I highly recommend reading it in full.

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1 Comment »


Comment by William R. Cumming

March 10, 2006 @ 10:15 am

Actually, FEMA was statutorily authorized to deal with a catastrophe the size of Katrina, just not by itself. By delegation from the Prsident from 1979-1994, and then by authority directly vested in the Director of FEMA, he/she was mandated to design a system of emergency preparedness and response that was comprehensive. Thus the need for an articulated planning basis for federal plans that could be scaled up both logistically and surged for larger events. It is true, however, that several times OMB in writing told the Director FEMA that it was not to concern itself with worst case scenarios. OMB, however, since its creation has been hostile to preparedness funding. Still the comments are good ones but it is a shame that the Harvard folks ignore plain statutory mandates. See public law 81-20 and its successors.

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