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Leaders Assess Katrina Successes, Lessons Learned

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 9, 2006 – The Defense Department is applying lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina to build its capabilities to respond to similar or even bigger catastrophes within the United States, defense and military leaders who oversaw the military response told Congress today.

U.S. military forces executed "the largest, fastest, most comprehensive and most responsive civil support mission ever," Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

He credited the 72,000 active-duty, National Guard and reserve members who responded, particularly at a time of large-scale deployments supporting the war on terror, as a testament to the readiness, agility and professionalism of the force.

DoD prepared its initial response to Katrina while it was still swirling in the Caribbean and moved in to the afflicted region within hours after it made landfall, McHale told the committee.

U.S. Northern Command, the DoD command responsible for homeland missions, began tracking Katrina while it was still a tropical storm, Navy Adm. Timothy Keating, NORTHCOM commander, told the senators. Even before the hurricane made landfall last Aug. 29 or federal agencies requested help, NORTHCOM received DoD authority to deploy the forces needed to save lives and reduce suffering, Keating said.

"We were extremely proactive," McHale told the committee.

A General Accountability Office report issued Feb. 1 confirms McHale's assessment. While the federal government generally waited for the affected states to ask for help, the report notes, "some federal responders such as the Coast Guard and DoD did 'lean forward' in proactive efforts anticipating a major disaster."

National Guard soldiers and airmen were on duty as quickly as hurricane-force winds cleared the area, Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, reported. Within 24 hours, 9,700 Guard members were in New Orleans alone, and within 96 hours of the storm's passing, more than 30,000 more Guard troops had deployed, he said.

"We did not wait. We anticipated needs, we responded immediately, and I feel, very effectively," Blum said. "The National Guard delivered when and where we were needed."

Ultimately, more than 50,000 National Guard troops from all 50 states and several U.S. territories responded in what Blum called "the largest National Guard domestic response force in the history of our nation."

"It wasn't by accident that the Guard forces got there in large numbers ahead of the active forces," McHale told the committee. "For domestic missions, it makes a great deal of sense to rely primarily on the National Guard" and to augment it with active-duty forces as needed, he said.

More than 22,000 active-duty members also supported Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

"The ability of our armed forces to react to such a devastating hurricane speaks volumes to the readiness, professionalism and training of our active-duty, Reserve and National Guard forces," Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, told the committee.

These troops performed efficiently and effectively, in collaboration with local, state and federal agencies under extremely austere conditions, he said.

Army Maj. Gen. Bennett Landrenau, adjutant general for Louisiana, expressed gratitude to all who came to his state's aid in its time of need. "In the face of our nation's greatest natural disaster, the heart and soul of this country launched the greatest response and outpouring of support ever witnessed on American soil," he said.

Landrenau praised the cooperative spirit with which each military component operated during the crisis. He dismissed suggestions that the response might have gone smoother with a single, "dual-hatted" commander controlling both "Title 10,"or federal, and "Title 32," or state, forces.

"We did, in fact, reach unity of effort, each component working toward a common goal, while maintaining unique chains of command," Landrenau told the committee. "We had developed a multicomponent command operating under the legal authorities of Title 10, 14 and 32 of the U.S. Code, all in support of the governor of Louisiana." The Coast Guard operates under Title 14 of the U.S. Code.

While the Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the capabilities of the military in disaster response, it also demonstrated some shortcomings, McHale said. "We did very well," he said. "But we must do better."

McHale recommended that DoD:

Get faster, more accurate ways to conduct damage assessments; Achieve a unity of effort when multiple federal agencies converge on an affected area; Improve communication with first responders and emergency management personnel; Integrate both active- and reserve-component capabilities into planning for catastrophic events as well as on-the-scene operations; and Re-examine the roles DoD could foreseeably be asked to carry out following a disaster and what resources might be needed to support that effort.

The GAO report echoes many of McHale's recommendations, including one to further define and leverage military capabilities that could be needed in a major catastrophe in the planning process.

"More detailed planning would provide greater visibility and understanding of the types of support DoD will be expected to provide following a catastrophic incident - including the types of assistance and capabilities that might be provided, what might be done proactively and in response to specific requests, and how the efforts of the active duty and the National Guard would be integrated," the report said.

Noting that the 2006 hurricane season is just 111 days away, Honore offered the senators his own 11 "quick fixes" to improve the military's disaster response.

Like McHale's and the GAO reports, Honore's recommendations focused heavily on planning before a catastrophe to ensure a more efficient response when one occurs. He urged DoD to establish a unified command-and-control organizational structure in advance and pre-position a mobile disaster cell and common interoperable communication assets.

Honore also advised designating a single DoD point of contact to coordinate requirements with the federal coordinating office, and pre-allocating space in state emergency operations centers to integrate federal and other agency responses. To ensure continuous operations, he suggested establishing external support to fill common resource shortfalls, ensuring power-supply capabilities and getting industries to commit to re-establish critical services.

In addition, the general recommended developing a plan that sustains government functions 24/7 and implementing a disaster clause for local and state employees that authorizes and prepares them to fill key disaster-support manning gaps.

"Improvements can and should be made to ensure our responses to future natural or manmade disasters meet the challenge," Honore said.

DoD was working to bring more realistic and challenging scenarios into its catastrophic response planning even before Hurricane Katrina, McHale told committee. Scenarios being studied equaled or exceeded Katrina's destruction - from a Category 5 storm hitting a major U.S. city to multiple nuclear explosions, to multiple radiation attacks, he said.

Contact Author

Paul McHale
Adm. Timothy J. Keating, USN
Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, USA
Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, USA
Maj. Gen. Bennett Landrenau, USA

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