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News   Civil Works

Northern Command Applies Lessons Katrina Taught

Aug. 28, 2015 | BY Jim Garamone , DoD News Features, Defense Media Activity
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In 2005, Hurricane Katrina rocked the nation’s complacency in how it would face a major disaster.

The storm, which hit Louisiana and Mississippi 10 years ago, killed about 1,200 people and caused $10 billion in damage, according to the National Hurricane Center.

About 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded, and roughly 80 percent of the Mississippi coast was destroyed by the Category 3 hurricane.

U.S. Northern Command was not quite 3 years old when it was thrust into the rescue and recovery phases of Katrina’s aftermath. More than 60,000 service members -- both active duty and National Guard -- participated in storm recovery efforts.

Lessons Continue to Resonate

The lessons from the storm continue to resonate with Northcom, said Tim Russell, the vice director for future operations at in the command’s Colorado Springs, Colorado, headquarters. The command has thorough plans on how to respond to a disaster in the United States, he said. These include not only hurricanes, he noted, but also fires, earthquakes and man-made disasters.

The Defense Department has tremendous resources and the ability to get them where needed, said Donald J. Reed, deputy chief of Northcom’s civil support branch. “Logistics, security, communications, medical support, aircraft -- the list goes on,” he said.

Need for Planning With State and Local Officials

One lesson the command learned from Katrina was the need to do all planning with state and local officials, Reed said. “If something happens,” he explained, “all [parties] need to know how Northcom knits in with local, state and [Federal Emergency Management Agency] efforts.

“There are reams of papers on those plans,” he continued. “There are authorities the Northcom commander has been given by the [defense] secretary to get capability that may be more proximate to the incident site from another service and direct them to be moving in anticipation of a formal request from FEMA.”

In 2005, this wasn’t the case. Northcom was a new command, having been established in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks. “We were just getting our arms around our components,” Russell said. “We didn’t have any forces, … and we didn’t have any authorities to go after forces.”

To get forces, the command had to apply for them, and that was not a very nimble process, Russell said. That has changed, he added, and the Northcom commander now has the authority he needs to get forces.

Dual-Status Commanders

Another aspect learned from the Katrina response was command of the forces involved. While most of the troops in Joint Task Force Katrina were National Guardsmen on Title 32 state orders, many were Title 10 active-duty service members with different chains of command. Northcom since has established dual-status commanders.

“We have a Guardsman who also accepts a federal commission, or we have a federal general officer who takes a state commission, and he is able to provide that unity of effort over Guard and Title 10 federal forces in the same battlespace, working the same problem,” Russell said.

But much of what the command learned was around the need to build relationships for the defense mission of supporting civil authorities. “We work with the National Guard and the services to ensure they understand what our role is,” Russell said. “In 2005, it was not understood what the DoD role was.”

State and local officials also didn’t know what DoD could bring to the effort, how long it would take to get forces and capabilities where they were needed, and they didn’t understand how DoD would knit into state and local efforts, Russell said.

‘Now They Are Getting It’

“Now they are getting it,” he added. “We still have a lot to do, but I think there is a growing recognition of what the Department of Defense’s capabilities are and what our roles can be and, more importantly, there is a sense of trust and a better relationship among local, state, Guard and interagency partners.”

Northcom has a directorate -- the J-9 -- which is the “home room” for interagency representatives, Russell said. The J-9 has reps from the various states, as well as from the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers.

“We have all the organizations from within government that could be involved with a ‘defense support of civil authorities’ event in one place,” he said. “They live here. Immediately, we have people who understand how Northcom will be operating in any given event.”

The National Guard is the biggest partner for the command and Northcom’s deputy commander is a National Guard lieutenant general. The Coast Guard is also integrated at all levels of the command. “The tone and the conversations with our Guard and interagency partners are changing,” Russell said.

Major Change in Disaster-Response Strategy

What also has changed is the strategy behind employing DoD assets, Reed said. During Katrina, the doctrine in place was called “sequential failure,” meaning local officials had to fail and then the state effort had to fail before federal help could come in. Katrina changed this. Local, state and federal planners work together now.

“We are fully engaged in integrated planning with DHS and our other partners, and that has a huge, huge impact on our efforts,” Reed said. “It’s gone from a sequential to a simultaneous event. We’re not seen as threatening to the National Guard or the state, we’re seen as part of a concerted effort, and that enhanced our ability to get the right stuff to the right place.”

The command works constantly on plans and has a group that looks at possibilities around the nation and what the appropriate response should be. Plans do not get dusty on shelving in the headquarters, but are constantly updated with changes in populations, changes in terrain, changes in threats or changes in technology.

Wary of Complacency

The communications system has been reinvented since Katrina, and that must be taken under consideration. Remotely piloted vehicles also add a technology that can be used to survey situations, Russell said.

Both men said they are concerned about complacency, noting that Katrina showed what Mother Nature can do, and the command never wants to think they have everything covered.

“It’s been 14 years since 9/11 and 10 years since Katrina, and we haven’t had a disaster to that level since then, but that doesn’t mean the threats are not still there,” Reed said.

“We at Northcom, we are not complacent,” Russell said. “We spend a lot of energy planning and maintaining relationships that will help us in the event of a disaster.

(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDoDNews)