I’ve been reading through the DHS Inspector General’s report on DHS and FEMA”s response to Hurricane Katrina; below are a few passages within it that I found particularly interesting.
1. The NRP’s Catastrophic Incident Annex. The GAO’s initial report on Katrina in early February scolded DHS for failing to invoke to Catastrophic Incident Annex of the National Response Plan, which would have activated the response function to an additional level. When the report was released, the DHS press office fired back that the GAO report was “riddled with errors” and argued that the Annex was only for “unexpected disasters.” The House Katrina report sided with the GAO’s interpretation of this issue. Continuing this debate, the DHS IG writes (pg. 24):
As a whole, the NRP does not require a formal statement of activation, but parts of the plan such as the Catastrophic Incident Annex do. This annex coordinates an accelerated, proactive federal response to a no-notice or short-notice catastrophic mass victim or mass evacuation incident, and is activated by DHSâ€™ Secretary. No one we interviewed could definitively state whether DHS activated the Catastrophic Incident Annex for Hurricane Katrina.
How is it that DHS does not even know, more than six months later, whether they activated this or not?
2. IIMG and the HSOC. The IG report contains an interesting passage on the extent to which conflicting authorities between the Interagency Incident Management Group (IIMG) and the Homeland Security Operations Center (HSOC) led to redundant reporting activity that strained resources and slowed down the response. From the report (pg. 26):
Co-located with the HSOC, during Hurricane Katrina the IIMG established operational hours, fulfilled requests for situational information, and created routine reports. IIMG members we interviewed said that the senior officials on the IIMG served as a reporting cell to DHS leadership and the White House, running parallel functions with the HSOC. Doubling the headquarters level information collection effort to include both the HSOC and the IIMG burdened response operations at the JFO and the NRCC, which began hiring contractors to manage information requests.
Recommendation #11 of the Townsend report addresses this problem; hopefully it will be resolved in time for the next major disaster.
3. FEMA’s human capital needs. Pages 81-86 of the IG report provide a very insightful tally of the human resources available to FEMA in a response, and the numerous factors that contributed to a shortfall in “boots on the ground” in the response to Katrina. It also notes the “cumbersome” nature of its personnel activation system. Out of these findings are too very sensible and necessary recommendations:
Recommendation #19: We recommend that the Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency develop a disaster workforce plan that accounts for standing capability for permanent, temporary, and reserve staff that is responsive to the needs demonstrated in response to previous disasters, and also develop a plan that is scalable to other events irrespective of cause, size, or complexity.
Recommendation #20: We recommend that the Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency develop and implement a system that automates and tracks the selection, deployment, training, and demobilization of responders.
Both of these items need to be first-order priorities for FEMA and DHS, in parallel with efforts to improve supply and logistics capabilities.
A later section of the report (pages 118-122) speaks frankly about FEMA’s long-term personnel and workforce challenges, with passages such as the following that speak directly to the causes of FEMA’s morass:
FEMA has reorganized its divisions and offices more than five times since 1995….
While interviews suggest that low staffing levels might be a chronic and worsening condition, we could not ascertain the extent of changes in vacant positions, because staffing baselines have only been recorded since January 2005….
In contrast, based on budgeted staffing levels, FEMAâ€™s staffing levels have remained relatively constant. However, these numbers are misleading because they do not reflect funds set aside to support DHS programs (3 percent of FEMAâ€™s budget) or the number of positions Human Resources deliberately leaves unfilled because of budget constraints (15 percent (ed. note: !!!) of FEMA positions)….
Also, because hiring is restricted, FEMA staff said they rely on retirements and departures to open up positions for new hiring. But waiting for such vacancies to occur does not allow FEMA to prioritize hiring positions based on need. In addition, many FEMA headquarters and FEMA field personnel told us that they will not continue to work for the agency or will retire as soon as they are eligible.
Those four passages paint as clear a picture of organizational dysfunction as you’re ever likely to find. These are things that the FEMA leadership changes alone won’t fix; they’re going to require years of work.
4. The final tally of the “debit card” debacle. The report provides new details on FEMA’s ill-fated experiment to give Katrina evacuees debit cards with $2,000 of credit regardless of need. The Treasury Department reported in October 2005 that over $22 million was distributed on these cards, which this report confirms, noting on pg. 98:
On September 8, 2005, FEMAâ€™s Director authorized the distribution of debit cards which began the following morning at three shelters in Texas: Reliant Arena (Astrodome) in Houston, Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, and Reunion Arena in Dallas. However, FEMAâ€™s Director made the decision to issue the cards as active with the $2,000 and with a personal identification number. Basically, this meant FEMA was providing funds without any assurance of need and with no way to verify that people who received the cards were actually eligible for the assistance. Cards were distributed for two days before this delivery mechanism for expedited assistance was abruptly discontinued….
In two days, over $22 million was provided to persons who may, or may not, have been eligible for assistance.
There are many other interesting parts of the report that I don’t have time to go into today. The IG has provided another useful addition to the ever-expanding compendium of post-Katrina studies. Of course, the true test of these reports will be whether they are acted upon effectively, or simply gather dust and become irrelevant.