DoD Uses Katrina Lessons to Improve Response Capability
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 6, 2006 The U.S. military performed admirably as it responded to Hurricane Katrina during the largest, fastest civil support mission in U.S. history - but it needs to do better in the future, according to the Pentagon's chief of homeland security.
Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, praised the military response to the catastrophic hurricane in an address to civilian leaders who recently visited the Pentagon. The civilians were past participants in the DoD Joint Civilian Orientation Conference that gives business, civic and academic leaders a weeklong immersion into military operations.
Within 10 to 12 days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, the military had deployed 72,000 forces, including 50,000 National Guard members, to the region, McHale told the group. In addition, 23 Navy ships and almost 300 helicopters were on the scene, conducting search-and-rescue missions and delivering critically needed humanitarian aid and other support.
Among the supplies they delivered were more than 30 million packaged meals - "down to the limit of our war reserve and then a little beyond," McHale said.
But as well as the military performed during Hurricane Katrina, it's critical that it improve on that performance, he told the group. "We take great pride in the military response to Hurricane Katrina, (and) we believe the mission was a success," he said. "But we must do better."
Despite Katrina's devastation, it's actually on the low end of the type of disasters the Defense Department could be called on to support, McHale said. "We now need to be prepared for the possibility of a catastrophic event that would exceed the loss associated with Katrina," he said.
McHale outlined several areas where improvements are needed -- damage assessment, search and rescue, and communications among them.
DoD needs a faster and more accurate way to assess damage, McHale said. He noted that media reports immediately after Hurricane Katrina made landfall were overly optimistic, with the true nature of the disaster not evident for another 24 to 48 hours.
"We cannot rely exclusively or even primarily on media reports, because the media can only cover a part of the picture," he said. "We need a more comprehensive vision of how much damage has been done and what kind of response is appropriate."
To ensure a faster, more accurate assessment in the future, the military needs a reconnaissance capability that's able to quickly deliver aerial imagery of the site, he said.
In addition, responders need better coordination for their search-and-rescue missions, he said. In the rush to rescue victims stranded in the stricken region, the National Guard, active-duty military and civilian agencies all provided helicopter response, but sometimes they were embarking on the same missions without realizing it, he said.
"We executed the mission quite well," McHale said, noting that thousands of lives were saved through the effort. However, he acknowledged, "we didn't do it efficiently." Better coordination is needed to ensure the most efficient use of search-and-rescue assets during future missions, he said.
Hurricane Katrina also drove home the need for better communications among responders, McHale said. During the hurricane response, DoD responders realized their radios weren't interoperable with civilian first responders' radios and communications devices, he said. In some cases, active-duty and National Guard responders couldn't communicate with each other.
"I don't mean to exaggerate that deficiency. We were able to communicate," McHale told the group. "But we can do much better if we can design in advance of a crisis a fully interoperable system of communications - not just for voice transmission, but data transmission as well."
About 7,000 National Guard members who deployed to New Orleans to help restore civil order provided desperately needed support to the city's devastated police force, McHale said. But it quickly became evident that nonlethal weapons could have been a big asset, he said.
"In the United States, we should deploy security forces with the full range of capability - capabilities that include deadly force if that's required, but also capabilities that are less than deadly force," he said.
This is particularly true when disorder arises from public panic rather than criminal intentions, he said. "So we are now looking at a range of capabilities that would allow us to tailor the package of deployable forces to meet the requirement of security without using excessive force in doing so," he said.
Since Hurricane Katrina, there's been a reassessment of DoD's role in responding to catastrophic events, McHale told the group. Under current law, the Department of Homeland Security takes the federal lead during major disasters of this type. But McHale said the president needs the flexibility to select whatever agency is best prepared to respond to a particular catastrophic event.
Depending on the nature of a catastrophe or attack, that could be the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Justice or Department of Defense, he said.
The lessons of Hurricane Katrina will help the Defense Department ensure it's better prepared to handle a future crisis, McHale told the group.
"We are very proud of what those 72,000 men and women in uniform did and how rapidly they did it in order to relieve suffering and provide humanitarian assistance (during) what was arguably the most challenging natural disaster in U.S. history," he said. "But with pride earned through their effort, we recognize that the next time around, we have to do better."