Homeland Security Insider

Opening the Security Floodgates

By now, we've all heard about the 520-page Congressional report, A Failure of Initiative, slamming the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina. The report blasted officials at all levels of government from the president down to community leaders in New Orleans for failing to react to the calamity that left an estimated 1,300 people dead and 300,000 homes destroyed along the Gulf Coast. The report found the Department of Homeland Security had a "blinding lack of situational awareness and disjointed decision making" that "needlessly compounded and prolonged Katrina's horrors." Anyone who spent any time in the region immediately after the Aug. 29, 2005, storm knows the accuracy of this statement. However, it's time to focus on fixing the problem and stop trying to assess blame.

The problem with the government's response to Katrina has less to do with whether the FEMA director or DHS secretary did their jobs than it has to do with the fundamental nature of government. The report cited government failure as a result of "bureaucratic inertia." Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich describes it as the need to move the government to an entrepreneurial model and away from its current bureaucratic model, so that we can get government to move with information-age speed and effectiveness.

"Implementing policy effectively," Gingrich said, "is ultimately as important as making the right policy."

Implementing policy -- where the proverbial rubber meets the road -- must be anything but bureaucratic. Responding to a crisis should follow best practices and procedures, but with enough latitude to incorporate an entrepreneurial spirit while avoiding the sluggishness associated with bureaucratic thinking.

According to the report, the federal response to Hurricane Katrina was hampered by ineptitude, lack of leadership and bureaucratic turf wars across all levels of government. The report chided "a risk-averse culture that pervades big government" and "officials at all levels seemed to be waiting for the disaster that fit their plans rather than planning and building scalable capacities to meet whatever Mother Nature threw at them." The report concluded: "If this is what happens when we have advance warning, we shudder to imagine the consequences of when we do not. Four-and-a-half years after 9/11, America is still not ready for prime time."

While sparing no criticism for the bureaucracy, the report was rightfully generous in its praise of individuals, particularly "the heroic efforts of those who acted decisively -- those who didn't flinch, those who took matters into their own hands when bureaucratic inertia was causing death, injury and suffering."

DHS appears to be taking reform seriously and addressing the problems in traditional government fashion -- by increasing the FEMA budget. The proposed 2007 budget, which will take effect Oct. 1, asks Congress for a 10-percent increase in FEMA's budget over 2006, including $44.7 million to strengthen support functions. Whether this will solve the problem remains to be seen. Money was not the problem during the Katrina response, as FEMA's core budget has grown 40 percent from Fiscal 2004 to the Fiscal 2007 proposed budget.

Fixing the federal response to disasters involves more than just reorganizing FEMA. It also requires a broader understanding that state and local resources are exhausted from the onset of a catastrophic disaster. Since state and local governments cannot respond in such extreme events, providing relief efforts is a federal government responsibility -- not just FEMA's. National resources have to show up in hours, not days, in unprecedented amounts, regardless of the difficulties.

The fix to federal response should include a look at how homeland security funding is allocated. We have a system that Congress, the states and cities all want. All insist on grants that dole out money with little regard to national priorities. Katrina showed why that approach is wrong. All of the fire stations in New Orleans were under water, as was much of the equipment bought with federal homeland security dollars. Only a national system capable of mustering the whole nation can respond to catastrophic disasters.

As part of its reform initiative, the administration should establish funding requirements for first responders under the State Homeland Security Grant Program, the Urban Area Security Initiative and the Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention Program. DHS should fully implement Homeland Security Presidential Directive 8. This directive establishes a national all-hazards preparedness goal, outlines mechanisms for improving federal preparedness assistance, and provides means to strengthen federal, state and local preparedness capabilities. Funding from the federal government for homeland security and disaster response and relief activities should focus on national priorities, better regional coordination and communication, and capitalizing federal assets.

It is my belief that the federal government should provide support and assistance only in those situations that are beyond the capabilities of state and local governments and the private sector. State and local governments must retain their primary role as first responders to disasters, and the federal government should avoid federalizing state and local first response agencies and activities.

Finally, catastrophic disasters require large-scale and rapid military response that only the National Guard can provide. The National Guard needs to be restructured to make it both more effective and quicker to take action.

Most disasters, including terrorist attacks, can be handled by state and local emergency responders. Only catastrophic disasters -- events that overwhelm the capacity of state and local governments -- require a large-scale military response. Assigning this mission to the National Guard makes sense. The Pentagon can use response forces for tasks directly related to its primary war-fighting missions, such as theater support to civilian governments during a conflict, counterinsurgency missions and post-war occupation, as well as homeland security. These forces will mostly be National Guard personnel. The National Guard needs to be large enough to maintain some units on active duty at all times for rapid response in catastrophic events.


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