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On Point

Military and Natural Disasters


by Austin Bay
September 28, 2005

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush asked a logical, though politically complex, question: "Is there a natural disaster, of a certain size, that would then enable the Defense Department to become the lead agency in coordinating and leading the response effort?"

Hurricane Katrina -- a natural disaster of extraordinary magnitude -- overwhelmed state and local emergency response capabilities. U.S. military forces are built to operate in dangerous, overwhelmed environments.

Katrina and her less-savage sibling, Rita, left a swath of the South as razed as a combat zone. High winds and high water can devastate as effectively as high explosive.

Panicked refugees flee battlefields. The faces of Katrina's shocked evacuees reflected a similar fear.

The evacuation of Houston also has a military analog. U.S. interstate highways are "civil defense" roads -- at least, that's how they were billed when we began the super-highway system. In the event of an enemy air attack, citizens would evacuate the cities using the interstates. Planners intended to route traffic in one direction to double evacuation capacity. In World War II, the Germans used this "one-way traffic" trick on their autobahns to move military units back and forth between the Eastern and Western Fronts.

Natural disasters, though leaving war-like results, are not warfare. We'll never defeat the weather. Bombing a volcano seems counterproductive.

While Bush isn't suggesting that the Pentagon become a national EMS, police and fire department, "lead agency" language usually means directing plans and -- at some point -- exercising command. Beltway background chatter reflects this.

Two weeks ago, Sen. John Warner wondered if Congress should reconsider the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 and give the president and secretary of defense "correct standby authorities" to oversee disaster response. Posse Comitatus generally prohibits U.S. military personnel from direct participation in domestic law enforcement activities.

Agreed, the U.S. military has the discipline and organizational capacity to act amidst chaos and fear. But do the American people really want (or need) to expand DOD's role in natural disasters?

Under current law, state and local governments take the lead in disaster preparedness and initial disaster response.

The political case for state and local leadership has a constitutional basis. We not only separate power in our republic into judicial, legislative and executive branches, we divide it among the federal and state authorities. Separation and division deter centralized power, the kind of power that attracts "a man on a horse" (king or military dictator).

The "proximity case" for local and state lead makes abundant sense. The beat cop knows the local layout, the doughnut shops, the denizens and the dead-ends. Local and state authorities have both the intimate and institutional knowledge that translates into better crisis planning and better crisis improvisation.

But mega-disasters can leave the local cop a victim. When a 9.2 magnitude earthquake turns Southern California into a smoky blot, global assistance will surely be required.

While I'm not convinced that the current division of power and responsibility requires drastic reorganization and military leadership to correct, it's clear that Katrina knocked out communications in southern Louisiana. When briefing the president, Maj. Gen. John White called search-and-rescue coordination in the wake of Katrina "a train wreck." At one point, White reported, five different helicopters were sent to rescue the same victim.

Providing robust, seamless communications systems and coordinating air operations may be the most materially productive and politically wise use of DOD in natural disaster response. DOD is the logical "lead agency" for providing an integrated communications system capable of connecting all local, state and federal emergency vehicles and aircraft to NORTHCOM headquarters. DOD also has transport and medical capabilities. A retired U.S. Army sergeant friend used to quip, with professional pride, "The military's got the goodies." He meant superb technology and rugged, reliable equipment.

Thanks to U.S. taxpayers, DOD's material and communications capabilities are indeed unmatched. However, if federal "leadership" goes beyond providing communications and transport assets, it could stunt local and state emergency planning. Diminish local and state responsibility for immediate action, and overall response to the next mega-disaster may be far worse than the response to Katrina.

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