The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned

President George W. Bush Feb. 23 released the review by his administration of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, telling reporters, "We have made a strong commitment to people in the Gulf Coast and we will honor that commitment, as well. The report helps us anticipate how to better respond to future disasters. In the meantime, our commitment to rebuild and help rebuild Mississippi and Louisiana is ongoing and robust."

Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned was the product of an extensive review led by the president's Homeland Security Advisor Fran Townsend. The report identifies deficiencies in the federal government's response and makes 125 specific recommendations to the president to lay the groundwork for transforming how the country - from every level of government, to the private sector, to individual citizens and communities - pursues emergency preparedness and response.

The report identifies the systemic problems in federal emergency preparedness and response revealed by Hurricane Katrina - and the best solutions to address them. It includes 11 "critical" actions to be completed before June 1, 2006, the first day of the next hurricane season.

Lessons Learned contains recommendations that may significantly change the relationships between local, state and federal governments in emergencies. A rush to implement some of these recommendations is feared by emergency managers.

"Before implementing many of these recommendations, we need to get the state and local emergency management professionals who work in this field daily as well as mayors, county commissioners and governors at the table to work out what these changes in our relationships will really mean," said Robert Bohlmann, emergency management director for York County, Maine and government affairs chairman for the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM).

As examples, Bohlmann cited concerns about recommendation 109, which creates a state annual level of preparedness status "report card." If this report card is not generated as the result of a collaborative process, it could turn out to be another meaningless bureaucratic exercise, he says. Another recommendation essentially mandates annual training for governors and mayors, as well as participation in exercises.

"I think local and state emergency management professionals welcome accountability," says Bohlmann, "but that accountability has to happen from a collaborative process involving all of the partners in the system."

The Lessons Learned report states, "Hurricane Katrina was a deadly reminder that we can and must do better in responding to emergencies." Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent sustained flooding of New Orleans exposed significant flaws in national preparedness for catastrophic events and the government's capacity to respond to them. Emergency plans at all levels of government - including the 600-page National Response Plan that set forth the federal government's plan to coordinate all its departments and agencies and integrate them with state, local and private sector partners – "were put to the test and came up short," according to the report.

The report identifies three immediate priorities:

  • Implement a comprehensive National Preparedness System to make certain that the country has a fully national system that ensures unity of effort in preparing for and responding to natural and man-made disasters;
  • Create a "culture of preparedness" that emphasizes that the entire nation – at all levels of government, the private sector, communities and individual citizens – shares common goals and responsibilities for homeland security; and
  • Implement corrective actions to ensure the problems encountered during Hurricane Katrina are not repeated.

Larry Gispert, IAEM regional president representing the hurricane-prone Southeastern region, stated, "Local emergency managers stand ready, willing and able to sit down with our state and federal partners to fix those systemic problems exposed as a result of the Katrina response. A unilateral approach by the federal government to fixing these problems would, in reality, just compound an already problematic situation."

A Comprehensive National Preparedness System

The report counsels that the existing national preparedness System must be improved to minimize the impact of disasters on lives, property and the economy. Pursuant to the National Strategy for Homeland Security, the president directed the creation of a comprehensive national preparedness system in Homeland Security Presidential Directive 8 (HSPD-8), starting with a national domestic all-hazards preparedness goal.

In response, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has developed an Interim National Preparedness Goal. That must now be translated into a preparedness system that includes integrated plans, procedures, training and capabilities at all levels of government. The system must also incorporate the private sector, NGOs, faith-based and other grassroots groups, communities and individual citizens. The objective of the National Preparedness System must be to achieve and sustain risk-based target levels of capability to prevent, protect against, respond to and recover from major natural disasters, terrorist incidents and other emergencies.

Noting that "the response to Hurricane Katrina revealed a lack of familiarity with incident management, planning discipline and field-level crisis leadership, the report said the federal government "must clearly articulate national preparedness goals and objectives. It must create the infrastructure for ensuring unity of effort. The federal government must manage the National Preparedness System for measuring effectiveness and assessing preparedness at all levels of government."

The Lessons Learned report outlines five elements that are critical for a National Preparedness System:

  • Building and integrating the federal government's operational capability for emergency preparedness and response;
  • Strengthening DHS's capacity to direct the federal response effort while providing resources to responders in the field;
  • Ensuring unity of effort and eliminating red tape and delays in providing federal assistance to disaster areas;
  • Strengthening homeland security education, exercises and training programs; and
  • Ensuring that homeland security assessments, lessons learned and corrective action programs are institutionalized throughout the federal government.

Creating A Culture Of Preparedness

The creation of a "culture of preparedness "will emphasize that the entire nation shares common goals and responsibilities for homeland security," according to Lessons Learned. Such a culture must build a sense of shared responsibility among individuals, communities, the private sector, NGOs, faith-based groups and federal, state and local governments.

The Lessons Learned report outlines four principles to guide the development of a culture of preparedness:

  • A prepared nation will be a long-term continuing challenge;
  • Initiative and innovation must be recognized and rewarded at all levels;
  • Individuals must play a central role in preparing themselves and their families for emergencies; and
  • Federal, state and local governments must work in partnership with each other and the private sector.

Ensuring That The Federal Government Does Not Repeat Problems Encountered During Hurricane Katrina

The Lessons Learned report stresses that "changes must be made immediately to prepare for the 2006 hurricane season. The 2006 hurricane season is just over 3 months away. Even while the process to implement the lessons learned from Katrina is underway, there are specific steps the federal government can and should take now to be better prepared for future emergencies.

The report recommends 11 critical actions to strengthen federal response capabilities before June 1, 2006, many of which the administration has already begun to implement:

  • Ensure that relevant federal, state and local decision-makers, including leaders of state National Guards, are working together and in close proximity to one another in the event of another disaster;
  • Ensure that for events preceded by warning, we are prepared to pre-position an interagency Federal Joint Field Office (JFO) to coordinate and, if necessary, direct federal support to the disaster;
  • Ensure situational awareness by establishing rapid deployable communications, as well as instituting a structure to consolidate federal operational reporting with DHS;
  • Embed a single Department of Defense point of contact at the JFO and FEMA regional offices to enhance coordination of military resources supporting the response;
  • Designate locations throughout the country for receiving, staging, moving and integrating military resources to ensure the most effective deployment of Federal disaster relief personnel and assets;
  • Identify and develop rosters of federal, state and local government personnel who are prepared to assist in disaster relief;
  • Employ all available technology to update and utilize the national Emergency Alert System in order to provide the public with advanced notification of and instruction for disasters and emergencies;
  • Encourage states to pre-contract with service providers for key disaster relief needs, such as debris removal and the provision of critical commodities;
  • Enhance the mechanism for providing federal funds to states for preparations upon warning of an imminent emergency;
  • Improve the delivery of assistance to disaster victims by streamlining registration, expediting eligibility decisions, tracking movements of displaced victims, and incorporating safeguards against fraud; and
  • Enhance ongoing review of state evacuation plans and incorporate planning for continuity of government to ensure the continuation of essential and emergency services.

"The lessons of Hurricane Katrina cannot be learned and put into action without change," notes the report. "As the federal government works to implement the near-term critical activities and 125 recommendations, state and local governments, the private sector, NGOs, faith-based and community organizations, the media, communities and individuals should undertake a review of their respective roles and responsibilities in preparing for and responding to catastrophic events."

"At a time when the administration is recommending decreases in assistance to state and local governments in the form of cuts to the emergency management performance grants, COPs, fire and homeland security grants, this report calls for greatly increased workload and accountability on our part," says IAEM President-Elect Mike Selves. "Without significant collaboration with our federal partners, how do we 'sell' many of these recommendations to our elected officials as anything other than 'unfunded mandates?'"

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