Academic journal article Homeland Security Affairs

The Department of Defense as Lead Federal Agency

Academic journal article Homeland Security Affairs

The Department of Defense as Lead Federal Agency

Article excerpt

Hurricane Katrina has forced us, as it should, to look with an unflinching eye at what the requirements may be, not in response to a major disaster - we're pretty well prepared in that case - but a catastrophic event where tens of thousands of Americans may lose their lives where the first responder community is maybe taken out by the event and where a prompt response requires something bigger and faster than anything we've done before. 1

?Secretary Paul McHale, Assistant Secretary of Defense Homeland Security

None of us believed that the best lesson to be learned from Katrina was that all answers can be found in Washington. On the other hand, the call for increasing the military's role in domestic affairs is easy to grasp. Who else can respond the way the military can? Who else can stand up when others have fallen? 2

?The House Select Bipartisan Committee Report, "A Failure of Initiative"


As the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina has come and gone, images from the disaster are indelibly burned in our American psyche. During the height of the catastrophe, Americans stood by helplessly watching fellow citizens suffer and yet were powerless to hasten the pace of the government's response. Hurricane Katrina was, inarguably, the most destructive storm in U.S. history. Katrina destroyed over 200,000 homes in New Orleans alone, and could ultimately cost as much as $200 billion. 3 The government's slow response to Katrina makes us cringe with concern that, unless there is some radical "shake up" in the federal government, history is doomed to repeat itself.

The federal government's performance during Katrina calls into question whether we will truly be ready when the next large-scale catastrophe strikes. Although history will ultimately be the judge, contemporary accounting of the federal government's Katrina response presents a sobering reminder of the complexities of a system of government that was tested under fire. By the president's own admission, our government, at all levels, failed that test. 4 While navigating through the crisis with the best of intentions, government leaders and agencies involved in the response effort seemed to talk past one another, or did not understand basic tenets of the National Response Plan (NRP) and the National Incident Management System (NIMS). Both the NRP and NIMS were designed to guide federal response efforts during catastrophic incidents like Katrina. Together, the two plans seek to define responsibilities and outline certain "triggers" where federal response actions would supplement but not supplant state emergency management actions.

Reflection upon some of the key lessons learned from Katrina points to the need for an "all hazards" approach to all levels and types of catastrophic incident response planning - whether the crisis is natural or manmade. Along with a certain level of technical expertise and knowledge of federal emergency response protocols, government leaders must possess innate leadership abilities to reaffirm public confidence in government, especially during times of crisis. The next large-scale catastrophe could indeed paralyze our nation if our elected local, state, and national leaders do not grasp this simple fact and start training for it now. During a crisis we, as a nation, need not only a functioning and competent system of national incident response; we will require leaders who know the intricate inner workings of that response system and who are able to confidently communicate that knowledge to the public throughout the crisis. 5

During times of extreme national vulnerability, frightened Americans look for leadership and direction. Because of its unique culture and training to demonstrate authority, the U.S. military is often looked to as a solution in bringing order out of chaos during times of national crisis. 6

Some will argue it is the military, with its unique culture of discipline and professionalism, that stands out as the only institution that can really inspire the public's confidence during crisis events like Katrina or a large-scale terrorist attack. …

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