Preparation Is Key to Disaster Response

Article excerpt

The strident blame game and the frenetic, political tap dancing that followed Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have overshadowed the serious conversation that we need to have about the painful lessons from our inadequate response to these disasters. It is a discussion that is important to all levels of government, but should be of prime interest to the Department of Homeland Security, as it continues to develop its organizational structure and refine its procedures for disaster response.

It's often been said in management circles that plans are only good intentions unless they immediately translate into effective action.

This observation has come into sharp relief as administration and military officials pondered the lessons of these two mega storms. Military professionals know first-hand how difficult it is to respond to any contingency without a detailed, well-rehearsed plan, with a cadre ready to implement it and rehearsed provisions to call upon outside support. In short, the military's forte is good planning, backed up by hard training and rehearsal against anticipated events. And even though the military rarely executes exactly against the postulated contingency, teamwork, leadership and command-and-control are honed through these exercises.

Without necessarily pointing fingers, the problems we saw in the aftermath of Katrina clearly resulted from an inability to execute timely emergency-response plans at all levels--local, state and federal.

It was clear local and state resources had been overwhelmed by the unprecedented flooding, but why weren't federal resources and support coordinated sooner?

By the Department of Homeland Security's own account, its computer simulations had predicted that local first responders could not cope with a crisis of that magnitude. Only when National Guard and active-duty military units began arriving on the scene was there some semblance of order and organization along the devastated areas of the Gulf Coast.

Amidst the outrage and finger-pointing that followed the storm, several lawmakers and homeland security experts called for the federal government to make the Defense Department the lead agency for disaster response.

The reasons driving these recommendations are obvious: What distinguishes military units from every other organization is not just their meticulous planning, but also their ability to train hard against their plans and the ability to adjust when responding. The military's secret to success lies in its commitment to rehearsal and training. So when it comes time to go into action, the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have confidence in their team, their leadership and their ability to deal with the unexpected.

That spirit of preparation, readiness and professionalism needs to spread throughout the other agencies that also bear responsibility for disaster response and relief.

The now infamous "Hurricane Pam" simulation led DHS to conclude a year ago that a hurricane scenario in New Orleans would require massive federal intervention, but there was no "next step" taken. In retrospect, command post exercises would have helped to identify responsible actors for critical elements of the plan, as well as deficiencies in planning and resources. …