When you fail to plan…
The popular opinion that the federal government, including the Pentagon, was wholly unprepared for hurricane Katrina is simply not true. The talent vacuum at the head of FEMA was indeed a severe oversight but I believe the “wrong person – wrong place – wrong time” argument represents a symptom of a larger problem and not the cause. In addition, more of the blame for the early missteps in the relief and recovery operation has been put at the feet of Louisiana Governor Blanco for not making the early and legally mandated call to the White House for help. Many have hypothesized that this was not a federal government failure to respond, but rather the result of a slow moving state government hampered by laws to protect the rights of states. While there is plenty of blame to go around, the federal government deserves to be saddled with the bulk of it. Not because of a lack of preparedness on the part of FEMA, The Pentagon and National Guard, but because of a lack of cabinet level leadership around the idea of creating a national system for responding to major crises.
State boundaries are imaginary and provide no physical protection whatsoever. They might mean a lot to those of us who live within those boundaries, but they mean nothing to hurricanes or terrorists. We hear a lot about New Orleans, but Katrina has devastated 90,000 square miles of the entire region. At the very least, a regional response to this event was called for, but the magnitude of this devastation also required an effective national response mechanism.
The National Incident Management System (NIMS) was supposedly designed to ensure regional and national preparedness. But this is mostly an illusion. The problem is that NIMS offers broad guidelines, but does not lay out specific protocols to execute a response on a regional or national level. The NIMS guidelines leave too much room for each jurisdiction to come up with their own means of compliance. State plans get delegated to counties or cities which results in a patchwork system that does not provide a Common Operational Picture (COP), a predetermined chain of command, or cross-jurisdictional multi-modal interoperable communications, all of which are critical for effectively responding to a large, regional crisis. In some cases local jurisdictions need only self certify that they have complied with NIMS to start the money flowing to the states. These funds are then used to meet the needs of individual first response departments, such as a new police helicopter or fire truck. While such needs might be real, this process does not create a “system” that can be relied upon to bring effective regional or national response on the wake of an incident. The result of this design is that the Country has no real mechanism to mobilize our significant resources to respond to this type of disaster. Absent this, Herculean efforts are required of strong and experienced leaders who have the technical and political skills to create such a response on the fly. Talent is important. FEMA Director Michael Brown was the wrong person – in the wrong place – at the wrong time – with the wrong skills. But he is also a scapegoat who we must look past in order to solve the underlying problem.
The responsibility to respond to disasters and attacks has been correctly delegated to those who can presumably get there the fastest. These “first responders” (police, fire and EMS units) are full of dedicated, hard working, and often under-equipped and under-funded public servants who now have the added burden of preparing for the era of the terrorist. In many ways, Katrina was a deadly test of how well we might respond to a terrorist WMD attack. Unfortunately, we fell short. This is not however something that states can fix individually. Regional and national rules and mechanisms need to be in place to avoid this fiasco again. The fact that we have the wherewithal to enable an effective response is evident by what is happening in the region now. It simply took too long to mobilize because a National Incident Management System is really not in place.
The federal government needs to make NIMS a national operating strategy instead of a concept that is subject to interpretation by individual jurisdictions. At the least, this will provide a statewide Common Operational Picture, but the best-case scenario of a regional and national COP should be the real aim. It will also provide a predetermined chain of command that fits the magnitude of the disaster along with predetermined protocols for mobilizing assets. Commanders on the ground, in the air, or at a remote location should have the ability to locate, track, communicate with and direct all their “first response” assets, be they state, local or federal in the event of a large scale regional emergency. This is technologically possible today. Shortsighted planning on the part of politicians remains an obstacle.
Finally, no organization in the history of the world can mobilize assets quite like the U.S. military. Including the military in the NIMS operational plan would provide a wealth of capabilities that are desperately needed and simply don’t reside at the local first response level.
So we need a more forceful implementation of the National Incident Management System. But we also need to guard against stripping experienced people of their ability to take a course of action that might require deviation from established procedures. Government at all levels rarely proves capable in managing the tension that arises between adherence to process or protocol and the inevitable need for flexibility in a crisis situation. The main reason is that the culture of government fosters a belief that as long as one follows procedure, no blame can be expected regardless of the outcome. This created situations such as doctors being unable to get the medicine they needed to treat Katrina victims because they had no way to submit the required forms to the proper authorities. A perfect example of when following procedure became far more politically correct than useful.
NIMS will never be perfect because it is impossible to anticipate every variable people will be up against. The overriding goal for NIMS should be to create an integrated operating system for regional and National emergency response and to create what the military calls “jointness;” which loosely means involving more than one component of your operating “forces” during an engagement, thereby increasing effectiveness through synergy and unified command. This plan would allow all of the components of our national response mechanism, civil and military, to mobilize quickly and seamlessly in the event of the next Katrina sized disaster. Without it we will continue to fall short in achieving the ultimate aim of saving lives.