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
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
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,
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.