What we know so far - and what we don't
WASHINGTON — Why did it take so long? Why was government at almost all levels sluggish in providing aid to the victims of hurricane Katrina?
That's an issue that will preoccupy Washington for months to come. This week, President Bush appointed domestic security adviser Frances Townsend to lead an internal White House inquiry. And Congress will almost certainly authorize a full-scale investigation into the Katrina response, though its form and timing are still disputed.
Individual congressional panels have already begun to hold hearings, but testimony so far has dealt with preparation for future disasters, not the havoc wrought by Katrina's fury.
That said, some lines of questioning are already obvious. From unread plans to unmobilized troops, to a command structure that at times seemed less organized than a soccer team of 7-year-olds, the Katrina response was a case study in confusion. Official briefings, after-action reports, and media accounts have begun to sketch in some crucial details about why this might have been so.
Disaster plans were either incomplete, or ignored. Take the Louisiana State Emergency Operations Plan, drawn up in 2000. It has an extensive section on the evacuation of southeast Louisiana, and subsequent sheltering of evacuees, in the event of a hurricane. According to the plan, those not able to drive away from New Orleans were to be transported on locally obtained buses.
Yet New Orleans city officials had long known that those buses would not be forthcoming. From Mayor Ray Nagin (D) on down, they have said that they knew they didn't have the resources to empty out the city as the plan said. As Mr. Nagin told The Wall Street Journal, his own plan was "get people to higher ground and have the Feds and the state airlift supplies to them."
An unanswered question is why the city did not use the resources it did have, even if those might not have been enough to fully transport the estimated 20 percent of the city that didn't leave by car. New Orleans had upwards of 300 buses, plus hundreds of school buses and other municipal vehicles.
Similarly, the relevance of the Department of Homeland Security's National Response Plan (NRP) to the effort that evolved now seems in question.
Released in December 2004, the NRP is an attempt to reorient national disaster preparedness. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), formerly an independent agency, is now part of the larger Homeland Security bureaucracy. Its main stated mission is to support state and local responders.
Thus FEMA waited for state and local officials to provide it with detailed lists of needs. As former director Michael Brown told The New York Times last week, "I never received specific requests for specific things that needed doing."
State and local officials, for their part, were perhaps still thinking about the old, independent FEMA. They were quickly overwhelmed by the disaster, and felt they had neither the time nor information to provided request spreadsheets.
As Congress furthers its Katrina inquiries, it will surely weigh whether FEMA should be plucked out of the larger Department of Homeland Security and made separate once again.
"We would have expected a sharp, crisp response to this terrible tragedy," said Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, at a kickoff hearing on Katrina last week. "Instead, we witnessed what appeared to be a sluggish initial response."
Perhaps no single issue contributed to the slow-footedness of the initial Katrina response more than lack of leadership structure. As is now well-documented, top officials had little idea of who was in charge of what, when.
On Aug. 29, for instance, FEMA director Mr. Brown was in Baton Rouge, La. He has said he repeatedly warned his superiors in Washington that state and local officials were at odds, or not communicating, and that he was struggling to establish a "unified command."
The next day, 36 hours after the storm first hit, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff finally issued a memo that declared FEMA's Brown the "principal federal official" to coordinate Katrina response. He also declared the storm an "incident of national significance," invoking the full powers of the National Response Plan.
Yet Mr. Bush had already declared the area a disaster zone on Aug. 27, prior to the storm making landfall. Some DHS officials believe that that declaration had already involved the NRP, making Mr. Chertoff's later move irrelevant.
Not that state and local officials were looking for the feds to provide an on-site hurricane czar, they say. In one instance, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) turned down an attempt by Washington to assert more authority. On Sept. 2, she refused to sign over her 13,000 National Guard troops to federal control. She worried that the request was political, allowing Washington to depict prior failures as her fault.
There is one national resource over which the White House has unquestioned command: the active-duty military. And in the wake of Katrina, some in Washington think the Pentagon should be more involved in the immediate response to disasters, whether they be storms or terrorist attacks.
Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent President Bush a letter last week saying it may be time to rethink long-standing laws that hinder the ability of active-duty troops to operate in the US.
These laws, such as the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, generally prohibit the military from being used for domestic law enforcement. They were originally enacted to protect the nation against even a hint of military tyranny.
In part, this may be a reaction to reports that frustrated military units were held up prior to deployment to the Gulf, or never deployed at all. Units of the 82nd Airborne were reportedly put on alert on Aug. 30, for example, but then not immediately sent. Some military helicopter units in the Gulf felt they could have easily flown rescue missions, but were not tapped soon enough.
Specialized active-duty military personnel did begin racing toward the Gulf in Katrina's immediate wake. Air Force search-and-rescue teams, which include active, reserve, and Guard airmen, were at work in the region within 36 hours. But it was not until six days after the hurricane had hit land that Bush announced deployment of a large number of active-duty troops: 7,200, including Marines.
This is a separate issue from that of the strength of local National Guards. Louisiana has 3,000 Guard troops serving in Iraq, and it's not yet clear whether this had any effect on the ability of state guard commanders to respond to the storm.
As Katrina's lessons are sorted, sober conclusions are already being drawn. "The Katrina disaster and the failure of leadership at so many levels ... has had to have encouraged terrorists," said former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, a member of the 9/11 commission, last week.
Local, state, and federal officials all need to take action, said Lehman, "before it's too late."