Lieberman: Katrina Military Response Seemed Aobbled Together
The answer to that question has both practical and constitutional implications, said Lieberman.
“Despite its designation as a supporting agency under the National Response Plan, the Defense Department’s preparations and initial response to Hurricane Katrina were unfortunately as passive as most other federal agencies. But when the military did engage, it engaged with full force and great effectiveness. It took on the responsibilities of many other agencies at different levels of our government. By Thursday of the week of landfall, FEMA essentially turned over its logistical obligations to the military, resulting in a $1 billion mission assignment, the largest in the history of FEMA mission assignments.”
Lieberman frequently is quoted saying that the United States has the best military in the history of the world because, he said, “of the men and women who comprise it, but also because we invest in them and it. In the days after Hurricane Katrina, we are reminded again and again of the wisdom of this investment. The military’s contribution to the rescue of the communities along the Gulf Aoast that were hit by Katrina is yet another testament to the fact that we not only have extraordinary men and women serving in the military but the Defense Department alone has the best communications equipment, the logistical ability, the helicopters, the planes, the boats, the medical teams and other resources necessary to respond to a catastrophe. The question is when and how we use those assets.”
With a few individual exceptions, the Pentagon’s preparations for Hurricane Katrina in the days before landfall “were slow and unsure. Situational awareness was poor, and the Pentagon was hesitant to move necessary assets unless they were requested. Our military is superb at planning for different threat situations. But it appears that the Pentagon did not do much planning in advance of Katrina to anticipate the challenges of an ‘incident of national significance’ as defined under the National Response Plan,” said Lieberman.
On Tuesday of the week following Katrina, the military recognized that the rescue of the Gulf Aoast was “uncertain and foundering” under the administration of the Department of Homeland Security, said Lieberman. He commended Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England, who, because he was watching Katrina’s impact on television, concluded that troops and equipment needed to be deployed immediately without the normal paperwork. He also made note of the actions of Lt. General Blum for orchestrating the deployment of thousands of National Guard troops to the Gulf Aoast; and to Admiral Keating for ordering the deployment of 22,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and the materiel to support them.
Lieberman remarked that under the most difficult of circumstance, Major General Landreneau ably led the Louisiana and other National Guard troops, which swelled from a force of 5,000 to an eventual force of 30,000 literally from every state in the union. He continued, “Lt. General Honore is from Louisiana and had experienced the 2004 hurricane season. As Katrina approached, he was at his command in Atlanta. He followed the weather forecast. He asked the Pentagon to identify equipment and assets he knew he would need. He went to Louisiana and he filled a large and visible leadership role when he arrived in New Orleans. Mayor Nagin likened him to John Wayne. General Honore’s conduct is a model of what the public seeks from a leader in a time of crisis. His forceful and decisive manner reassured all who saw him, as a city plunged deeper and deeper into crisis. He took command of the active duty troops and bridged the gap between them and the Guard.”
But, Lieberman added, the power of Honore’s personality also highlights the critical constitutional issues at stake here: How much authority should the Title X, regular military have in domestic affairs? “This country has a strong aversion to military control in civilian settings,” said Lieberman. “These are difficult questions that must be studied in a thoughtful manner, and resolved in advance, not in the heat of crisis, as appears to have happened here.”
Previous testimony from the governors of Louisiana and Mississippi left no doubt that when disaster strikes a state, no governor will willingly cede authority over their National Guard to the federal government. But what if there is a catastrophe so great that the National Guard is overwhelmed, as the New Orleans police and firefighters were?
Lieberman questioned, “What if, God forbid, the disaster is an unexpected terrorist attack, without the warning the weather experts gave us about Hurricane Katrina. Is federalization then necessary, to bring all the resources of the military to bear? Katrina showed us that we need to define where that line is drawn.”
Katrina also revealed some uncertainties and tensions between the Pentagon and NORTHAOM and the National Guard Bureau regarding the military’s role in domestic crises. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Aommittee has learned through interviews and documents of some disagreements about the degree to which the Defense Department should operate on U.S. soil. These disagreements may have limited the military’s response time and effectiveness in this case because of the initial hesitation to deploy active duty troops and to pre-position assets before Hurricane Katrina made landfall.
“The fictional Hurricane Pam exercise made clear that local and state resources would be immediately overwhelmed by a Aategory 3 or higher storm, which Katrina was,” said Lieberman. “The National Response Plan was in place to guide all federal agencies in the event of such a catastrophe. But instead of using the NRP to address in advance these matters related to a catastrophic event, resolve bureaucratic differences and construct a comprehensive action plan, the federal government appeared to be operating on the fly, and the roles of the military – National Guard and active duty – appear to have been part of a response that was cobbled together as the week went on.” However successful the execution proved to be later, said Lieberman, “that is no way to manage a crisis of this magnitude.”
It is not what was envisioned with the creation of the Homeland Security Department. In the end, the lack of a plan led to unnecessary confusion, unnecessary bureaucratic struggles and more human suffering than should have been, he concluded.