Monday, October 24, 2005

Federal disaster response readiness?

The fallout from hurricane Katrina has made me wonder whether federal agencies of the United States have focused too tightly on a military response to a terrorist attack at the expense of preparedness for more immediate and predictable concerns like natural disasters.

It appears clear to me that "Brownie," the former head of FEMA, coordinated that agency's response to Katrina poorly, to put it mildly, but beyond that there has to be more than one man to blame for the lack of a coordinated response to that tragedy.

In the immediate aftermath of Katrina quite a bit of discussion went around about the Posse Comitatus Act which, briefly, is a federal law that prohibits the US military from acting in a law enforcement capacity within the United States "except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress..." However, there are exceptions to this law that allow military participation in certain circumstances. According to an article written by William Banks, Director of the Institute for National Security and Counter Terrorism:

The law itself simply states a presumption against military involvement in law enforcement, not a rule. The actual rules provide sufficient authority for any catastrophic contingency, from hurricanes to terrorist attacks with weapons of mass destruction. That is not to say that the availability of troops will abate such a crisis. Moreover, the PCA [Posse Comitatus Act] presumption applies to enforcing the laws, not to providing relief personnel and supplies, equipment, or even medical triage.
So what was the problem? Why wasn't the authority to use military troops for just this type of situation exercised? A lot had to do with a lack of foresight and poor communication between local government and federal government, but bringing FEMA under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the resulting confusion also played a large role.

After September 11, 2001 we became so focused on being able to handle a terrorist attack that almost everything else was put on the back burner. The DHS was created to presumably help relieve the failure of our intelligence and law enforcement agencies to communicate and share information with each other regarding potential terrorist activity.

A clearer case of irony couldn't flow from the pen of Shakespeare himself.

I don't think communication and sharing, at least in a useful sense, are a result of layering bureaucracies on top of one another. The resulting red tape between FEMA and DHS must be mind-boggling.

I wonder if confusion related to military assistance was exacerbated by the Posse Comitatus Act and the fact that a civilian disaster response agency was under the control of DHS, which seemed primarily concerned with terrorist activity.

Lack of funding was a problem. With FEMA under the DHS and all focus on preventing the next terrorist attack, funding for FEMA was cut to provide more money for "homeland security," which apparently came to be defined solely as an overt attack by foreign aggressors. Not to mention funding cuts for the Army Corps of Engineers, which has a division that, along with five other districts, is responsible for water management in and around New Orleans.

A summary of these funding blunders is here.

FEMA needs more autonomy and cannot depend on funding leftovers from DHS. Lines of communication must be clearly defined so a federal response can be timely. And those with the power to make these decisions must be aware of the extent of their powers and the competency to know how to exercise them.

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