Unified Command and the State-Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi

By Carwile, William | Homeland Security Affairs, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Unified Command and the State-Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi


Carwile, William, Homeland Security Affairs


In October 2005, Michael D. Brown, former Undersecretary, Department of Homeland Security for Emergency Preparedness and Response, and Director, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), testified before a committee of the United States Congress on the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. U.S. Representative William Shuster, (R-PA) in his questioning of former Undersecretary Brown, said:

We've talked a lot about unifying command today and I want to try to get more in detail on that. I think it's, first, important for you to explain to us your view of what the Unified Command looks like to the American people, because I don't think anybody understands what that looks like. We might understand it in military terms but it's different when FEMA is on the ground. So could you give us, sort of, a sketch of what it looks like? 1

Representative Shuster was correct to characterize a military Unified Command as different from a Unified Command as envisioned by National Incident Management System (NIMS). In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the need for clear and coherent command arrangements during a disaster response has become obvious. A great deal of emphasis has been placed on the need for a Unified Command to deal with large-scale man-made or natural disasters. Most would agree that a strong local, state, federal, volunteer agency, and private sector partnership is required; however, there is no nationally understood, accepted, and implemented definition of what constitutes a workable Unified Command in a catastrophic disaster.

This article describes the general concepts, background, and history of Unified Command, as well as the use of Unified Command principles in the disaster response to the 2004 Hurricanes in Florida and to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi.

Unified Command: General Concept

A Unified Command is, in its essence, a mechanism to define and achieve a set of objectives in situations where two or more political or functional entities have authorities and/or assets. In a unified command approach, representatives of the entities meet to set goals and decide how each can contribute to the achievement of those goals. There can be strong, formal command and control relationships between and among the entities, as is the case in a military Unified Command, or the command and control linkages can be based on informal but structured arrangements that recognize federal responsibilities and the legal sovereignty of state and local governments under our federalist form of government. In a disaster response involving elected and appointed officials, consensus building and a collaborative approach to problem solving are important aspects of Unified Command.

Unified Command in a Military Context

The initial concept of a Unified Command derives from the military. It is an organizational arrangement in which commanders retain control over their units and assets while supporting the objectives of a larger command. Within the U.S. military, the term and practice of Unified Command have been used for some decades, especially since the National Security Act of 1947, later strengthened by the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. 2 The military has a straightforward and simple model to achieve unity of effort where different services work together. Department of Defense (DOD) doctrine defines Unified Command as 'a command with a broad continuing mission under a single commander and composed of significant assigned components of two or more Military Departments that is established and so designated by the President, through the Secretary of Defense with the advice and assistance of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff." 3

Military Unified Commands are made up of units that are assigned to the command through a joint document called the Unified Command Plan (UCP). The general mission is assigned by the President and the Secretary of Defense and in the National Military Strategy is further defined by the Combatant Commander. …

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