Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 1, 2015

Thad Allen: “The real problem in New Orleans was they experienced the equivalent of a weapon of mass effect. And they lost continuity of government.”

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response — by Arnold Bogis on September 1, 2015

Former Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen is fond of using that description of what Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans.  Often he adds, “without the criminality.”

That is an important distinction.  It means that because it was a natural disaster rather than a terrorist attack, the federal government could not simply take control of the response.  Instead, there was an intricate dance of competing political pressures, interpretations, and interests at all levels of government.  Depending on one’s political leanings, it is easy now to lame blame on particular people over others.  What I think should be understood by all is that communication between the local, state, and federal governments fell apart at the very moment it was most needed.

I bring this up because Allen was interviewed on Juliette Kayyem’s latest podcast.  It is an interesting conversation on his recollections about the response to that catastrophe.

You can listen to it here: http://wgbhnews.org/post/thad-allen-hurricane-katrina-10-years-later


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Pingback by Prepper News Watch for September 1, 2015 | The Preparedness Podcast

September 1, 2015 @ 1:27 pm

[…] Thad Allen: “The real problem in New Orleans was they experienced the equivalent of a weapon of ma… […]

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 1, 2015 @ 2:43 pm

Thanks Arnold.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 2, 2015 @ 7:49 am

Usually men and women are not all good or all bad. Actions do speak louder than words.

In NOLA and the GOM coast during Hurricane Katrina the US Coast Guard was both an HRO [high reliability organization] and a learning organization. Cudos again and well deserved.

But the Coast Guard with its many missions and goals is way understaffed and underfunded. As evidenced by the BP GOM spill the failure to have updated the NCP [National Contingency Plan–Part 300- of the Environmental regs in the CFR] since 1994 hurt the Coast Guard.

But the most devastating contribution to EPP [emergency planning and preparedness] was when Tom Ridge as the new Secretary DHS assigned the update of the Federal Response Plan [first published May 1992-then updated 1999] to Admiral Jim Loy [Ret.] formerly Coast Guard Commandant who in turn assigned it to the RAND corp. to do the update. RAND employees not expert on federalism issues [a tough road to hoe for anyone without certain background, training, and experience IMO] proceeded to blow the revision effort.

The NRP [National Response Plan] that formally superseded the 1999 FRP was issued in May 2005 in the signed off version was never fully implemented or trained up when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in late August.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 2, 2015 @ 7:53 am

Almost the entirety of the SCOTUS watchers and bar have concluded that with the retirement of its wonderous female Arizona member and contributor almost the entirety of SCOTUS has never been elected to a local government position.

Thus, federalism issues largely ignored and unexamined.

IS THIS OF SIGNIFICANCE? IMO very significant. Since IMO both HS and EM rest on federalism imbedded Constitutionally in the United States.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 2, 2015 @ 8:02 am

Federalism in the United States is the constitutional relationship between U.S. state governments and the federal government of the United States. Since the founding of the country, and particularly with the end of the American Civil War, power shifted away from the states and towards the national government. The progression of federalism includes Dual federalism, state centered federalism, and new federalism.

Comment by Vicki Campbell

September 6, 2015 @ 2:25 pm

Arnold, I must respectfully disagree with your post on several important counts.

First, your essential positing that any criticisms of the Katrina response will be inherently partisan is neither factual or logical, and it also flies in the face of the general consensus reached by multiple official after-action investigations and reports focused on what happened before, during and after Katrina, and why it clearly seemed to be, to put it in Quarantelli’s words, “the most mishandled disaster I’ve ever seen in my life.” This is not to say that there haven’t been fundamentally partisan criticisms because I think there have been. But those would be ones that simply aren’t based in the facts and the evidence, as best we can know it – not criticisms that are in fact well grounded, and in being so make one side or party as it were look worse than the other simply by stating the facts, or the otherwise royally obvious.

Second, your statement that “because it was a natural disaster rather than a terrorist attack, the federal government could not simply take control of the response” exhibits and replicates the false and very ideological myth that proved to be a major and deadly blind spot in the Federal response. That is a very poor and fundamentally inaccurate way of describing the Federal relationship to and responsibilities in a major disaster once a federal disaster declaration has been granted, which as most know, Bianco asked for and received before Katrina made landfall.

Quoting from the dominant textbook on Emergency Management by Haddow and Bullock (2011) “failure can be assessed at all levels, but when President Bush signed the federal declaration of disaster and announced it before Katrina even made landfall, the federal government, through DHS/FEMA, assumed the primary responsibility for the stewardship of the response to this storm’s aftermath. And by any objective evaluation of the response, it was a colossal failure” (pp. 19-20). This is what DHS and FEMA under Bush couldn’t begin to understand how to do because of their ideological blinders that left them only being able to comprehend a federal response component through a military lens, when in reality they were not restricted to such an extreme response either by the NRP or by law, either one. In other words, they couldn’t conceive of an emergency management response at the federal level, but rather only a military one.

One only has to look toward Bush’s and FEMA’s predecessors the decade before under Clinton, and to the decade of success that FEMA had under James Witt, which was widely heralded on both sides of the political aisle as being the most well functioning federal agency of that era – again by both parties. The key to all of that was the very pro-active, prevention and mitigation-oriented “lean forward” approach that FEMA took under Witt (as well as his renowned management skills that truly motivated people, both within FEMA and well beyond).

Continuing to quote Haddow and Bullock, in reference to how “the current emergency management system has reverted to the 1980s model” (p. 346) under DHS, “unlike their predecessor, the National Response Plan (which was active during Katrina), neither the new NRF (National Response Framework) or the NDRF (National Disaster Recovery Framework) actually require departments and agencies to agree to perform specific functions or deliver certain services. Nobody is accountable, and nobody is in charge. These are the exact circumstances under which FEMA functioned throughout the 1980s until the Federal Response Plan (the predecessor to the NRP) was finally developed and signed off on by the departments and agencies in the early 1990s” (p. 345).

Further discussing the “all-hazards” approach developed in the 1990s, wherein state and local governments were largely allowed to determine their own disaster planning priorities within a fairly broad set of guidelines and much federal support about sustainable planning best practices, so long as they in fact did so, Haddow and Bullock offer other examples of how the current emergency management system has largely abandoned the truly bottom-uo, all-hazards model of the 1990s and reverted to the 1980s model:

“During the 1980s, for instance, FEMA took the position that it would dictate to state and local governments what measures must be taken to comply with the federal response operations, and it measured this compliance through the CARL codes. The CARL codes were discontinued in the 1990s but were soon afterward replaced during the 2001 to 2009 period with requirements for state and local NIMS compliance. Furthermore, the Integrated Planning System (IPS) implemented by FEMA in 2006 dictates to state and local governments how they should plan for disasters, irrespective of the local or regional differences in risk or disaster type. Clearly, the top-down approach of the 1980s, when nuclear attack planning became the norm, was adopted in the post-9/11 era, where skewed perceptions influenced the policies such that terrorism became the leading hazard risk (and, it seemed, the only disaster-related concern). The all-hazards approach, in which state and locals determined their priorities, was given lip service but not supported by policies or funding” (p. 346).

They continue by concluding: ” In 2009, FEMA announced that the advancement of personal preparedness as a top agency priority and that individuals impacted by disasters have to learn to be “survivors” rather than victims. While this is certainly a lofty goal – as it was during the 1980s when FEMA supported the construction of personal bomb shelters – the question remains: How effective are personal preparedness programs? On the other hand, as was very clearly demonstrated during the 1990s, investing similar resource levels and providing the same leadership commitment into promoting mitigation by individuals and whole communities is highly effective in reducing the impacts of disasters” (p. 346).

So I will say forthrightly that I’m in very good company when I argue that it was FEMA and DHS under Bush that couldn’t conceive of a more mature, competent, nuanced public administration and management approach at the federal level to the federal role and component to managing major disasters, both before, during and after Katrina, that led to their inability to imagine anything other than either doing nothing meaningful, or taking over completely via a military response. Republicans have never been very able to muster up anything more developed than a comparatively authoritarian, all-or-nothing approach to governing, and perhaps no where is this more evident than in the evolution of FEMA and the field of emergency management. FEMA and the management of disasters at every level under Witt in the 1990s began to establish better, less authoritarian and more partnership-oriented ways to properly use the agency and the resources of the federal government to promote, support and incentivize state and local disaster planning and policy best practices that ushered in a new and, again, widely heralding era in emergency management. That was turned upside down and reverted backward under Bush and DHS, with the reinstitution of the habit of putting inexperienced and largely unqualified political hacks in charge of FEMA, which was the dominant practice of administrations until the 1990s, rather than skilled, experienced public and emergency managers like Witt certainly was on both counts. The difference can make all the difference, to both American lives and public dollars, and that is just one of the many lessons of Katrina.

Comment by Vicki Campbell

September 6, 2015 @ 5:31 pm

To add one final comment, and although I like and respect the man a great deal, I would have to strongly disagree with Admiral Allen’s characterization of Katrina’s impact as basically that of a “mass weapon effect.” It really is the epitome of just how much emergency management has become militarized and consequently truncated under DHS, and no matter how crude or comparatively uninformative and just generally inadequate the frame actually is for describing or understanding almost any disaster event except an actual military/terrorist one. The Katrina disaster was at core a mitigation failure of catastrophic proportions. If the levees hadn’t failed when they should never have, there would be no 10th anniversary of anything, and we would likely not have this forum topic. The words we choose and use to identify, frame and describe things matter. They shape our thinking about and understanding of both causes and solutions in pretty much any professional or service-related setting – certainly including in emergency management. Crude and barely relevant militaristic phrases and analogies such as this one just takes us further from describing or understanding the nature of the actual event, and its real causes and impacts – and as a result, ever further from an understanding of actions and policies necessary for better risk and vulnerability reduction in the future.

In fact, I was so annoyed by the comment that I almost didn’t listen to the podcast. But I eventually did, and I’m very glad you posted it, because I enjoyed it and hearing his perspective, which I invariably find interesting – just as you suggested. Thanks for posting it, but I do wonder why you chose the quote that you did, given all the other very interesting and sometimes quite useful things he had to say, given how much this quote seemed to further perpetuate the militarization of EM that so many people are fairly upset about and critical of, and don’t feel has served the public very well at all..

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