Magazine article National Defense

Who Is in Charge of What during Major Catastrophes Still Unanswered

Magazine article National Defense

Who Is in Charge of What during Major Catastrophes Still Unanswered

Article excerpt

* When a natural or manmade disaster strikes the United States, which federal agency is in charge of the response?

The answer is all of them and none of them, former Commandant of the Coast Guard retired Adm. Thad Allen suggested recently.

Homeland Security Presidential Directive-5, released in 2003, said that the Department of Homeland Security secretary takes command of a non-defense related catastrophe. A presidential policy directive released April this year reiterated this.


"Tell that to [Health and Human Services] in a pandemic," Allen said at the National Defense Industrial Association homeland security conference.

Since his retirement in 2010, Allen has emerged as a leading voice in the disaster response community.

He speaks from experience. In 2005, he directed Coast Guard search-and-rescue operations when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. The Coast Guard, with its noteworthy performance rescuing victims of the storm from New Orleans rooftops, was one of the few federal agencies that emerged from the disaster with a burnished rather than tarnished reputation.

Allen was on the cusp of retirement in April 2010 when the BP Deepwater Horizon platform exploded and began to gush petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano appointed him national incident commander.

"One of the most difficult things I had to do was explain to everybody that I was the national incident commander. You think that sounds pretty easy, right?

"I was not the BP incident commander, the Louisiana incident commander I was not the Republican incident commander I was not the Democratic incident commander"

Allen found bureaucrats from myriad agencies on the scene, all with statutory authorities and duties that they were determined to carry out. Like HHS in the hypothetical pandemic, in this case, it was Fish and Wildlife, part of the Department of Interior, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a Department of Commerce agency. Both agencies had similar statutory duties to monitor the gulf's wildlife. The Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (independent of any department) both had jurisdiction over what seafood could be harvested.

In addition, the federal government didn't have any direct authority over BP, which was ultimately responsible for capping the well. Nonprofits and state officials were also on the scene.

The BP spill points to the complexity of modem day disasters, Allen said. His three-pronged approach to responding to a catastrophic event is: understanding the complexity of a situation, building resiliency into society and bringing together a "unity of effort."

That differs from "unity of command," which is something that may never be achieved, Allen said. The federal government does not operate like the military. Ask a private in the Army what his chain of command is, and he should be able to explain it all the way up to the commander in chief the president of the United States. Ask a Fish and Wildlife functionary about his chain of command to the president, and he will likely answer with a blank stare.

Some have called for a Goldwater-Nichols type act for the federal government. The law that forced the four services in the military to fight jointly "is never going to happen," Allen said, "so get over it."

Unity of effort means that all these myriad stakeholders must come together to reach a single goal. In the BP oil spill, Allen came up with a mission statement that the different entities could rally around. In this case it was controlling the well, stopping the flow of oil and optimizing the response for the oil that was out there.

"When dealing with large complex problems, whether a disaster or a public policy issue, if you're going to take a polarized position based on what you think ideologically, you're never going to get to unity of effort," he said. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.