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Military Has Tools to Respond to Domestic Disasters, Report Says

By Steven Donald Smith
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 23, 2006 – The federal response to Hurricane Katrina demonstrated that the Defense Department is one of the only federal departments capable of playing a critical role in the nation's response to catastrophic events, a government report released today stated.

In September, President Bush asked Fran Townsend, his homeland security adviser, to conduct a review about the federal response to Katrina. The result is a report titled "The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned," which outlines what was learned from the government's response to the hurricane and how to better prepare and respond to future domestic disasters.

"I wasn't satisfied with the federal response," Bush said at the White House today. "The report helps us anticipate how to better respond to future disasters."

According to the report, better coordination among federal agencies is paramount to improving the response to disasters. It also states the military's operational capability allows it to translate presidential decisions into prompt, effective action during a catastrophic domestic disaster but should be further integrated and that the Defense Department should take the lead in some instances.

"The Departments of Homeland Security and Defense should jointly plan for the Department of Defense's support of Federal response activities as well as those extraordinary circumstances when it is appropriate for the Department of Defense to lead the Federal response," the report states. "The Department of Defense should ensure the transformation of the National Guard is focused on increased integration with active duty forces for homeland security plans and activities."

In addition to possessing large numbers of operational personnel that have been trained and equipped for their missions, the military brought robust communications infrastructure, logistics, and planning capabilities to the Katrina response, the report says.

However, because of the military's critical mission overseas, the solution to improving the federal response to future catastrophes cannot simply be to "let the Department of Defense do it," the report states. "Yet DoD capabilities must be better identified and integrated into the nation's response plans."

On today's "Good Morning America" program, host Charles Gibson asked Fran Townsend if giving the military a leadership role in domestic disasters was asking too much of an already "stretched" force. She responded that the report was not just talking about active duty forces, and said it was important to maximize the use of the National Guards.

"State National Guardsmen responded from around the country," she said. "There were more than 50,000 of them there. But we have to train and equip them, and they need interoperable communications, for example, to maximize their effectiveness."

The report does point out that there are limitations under federal law for using active duty military personnel domestically.

It recommends 11 areas of improvement that should be achieved before this year's hurricane season begins in June. According to the report, the U.S. government should:

  • Ensure that, in the event of another disaster, the United States is able to collocate relevant federal, state, and local decision makers, including leaders of state National Guards, to enhance unity of effort;
  • Ensure officials are prepared to pre-position a fully resourced and integrated interagency federal joint field office to coordinate and, if necessary, direct federal support disasters preceded by warning;
  • Ensure situational awareness by establishing rapid deployable communications and instituting a structure for consolidated federal operational reporting to the Department of Homeland Security;
  • Collocate a single Department of Defense point of contact at the joint field office and current FEMA regional offices to enhance coordination of military resources supporting the response;
  • Designate locations throughout the country for receiving, staging, moving, and integrating them to ensure the most effective employment of federal disaster relief personnel and assets;
  • Identify and develop rosters of federal, state, and local government personnel who are prepared to assist in disaster relief;
  • Employ all available 21st century technologies both to update and utilize the national Emergency Alert System in order to provide the general public with advanced notification of and instruction for disasters and emergencies;
  • Encourage states to pre-contract with service providers for key disaster relief efforts, such as debris removal and the provision of critical commodities;
  • Enhance the mechanism for providing federal funds to states for preparations upon warning of an imminent emergency;
  • Improve delivery of assistance to disaster victims by streamlining registration, expediting eligibility decisions, tracking movements of displaced victims, and incorporating safeguards against fraud; and
  • Enhance ongoing review of state evacuation plans and incorporate planning for continuity of government to ensure continuation of essential and emergency services.
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Related Sites:
The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned

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