RAND: Katrina Response Shows Need to Earmark National Guard Units for Disaster Work

The U.S. Army should change the way it plans for domestic emergencies – both natural disasters and terrorist attacks – to better support state and local first responders, according to a new RAND Corp. report.

Studying lessons offered by the response to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, RAND researchers recommend the Army create 10 regional task forces in the National Guard to focus on preparing for and responding quickly to future domestic emergencies. In addition, the National Guard formally should be given the federal mission to conduct homeland security activities, just as it does for counter-drug operations, according to the report.

“We believe the best way to improve the Army’s response to domestic disasters is to empower the National Guard for a regional focus,” said Lynn Davis, lead author of the RAND report. “The experience of Hurricane Katrina also demonstrates that new strategies are needed to prepare Army forces of all types for domestic emergencies.” Other authors of the report are Jill Rough, Gary Cecchine, Agnes Gereben Schaefer and Laurinda L. Zeman.

Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath caused enormous physical destruction and human suffering, but it also offered lessons for how the nation can better prepare for natural disasters and large-scale terrorists attacks, according to the RAND report. The most important problem was the speed with which local, state and federal civilian organizations were overwhelmed, and the military response also had shortcomings in the critical first few days.

The report from RAND, a nonprofit research organization, suggests each of the new National Guard regional task forces be responsible for one of the 10 multi-state planning regions used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The 900-member regional task forces would be able to respond to disasters within 18 hours to provide support to local and regional civilian agencies that are the first on scene.

“There was plenty of warning before Katrina and the nation’s response fell short for those stranded in the New Orleans Superdome and convention center, and in homes across Mississippi and Louisiana,” Davis said. “There may be no warning before future domestic emergencies, particularly those that may be caused by terrorists.”

The report, prepared for the U.S. Army by the RAND Arroyo Center, also recommends speeding up the National Guard response across state lines by:

  • Making each National Guard unit capable of rapid deployment and having state governors ready to call up units and not just wait for volunteers.
  • Establishing plans to use the Air National Guard or commercial air services to fly designated National Guard units to out-of-state emergencies.
    Creating programs that allow the new regional task forces to train regularly with local first responders, including law enforcement officials, as well as other units that are focused on counterterrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

Giving the National Guard a federal mission for homeland security would help provide access to the funding needed for creation of the regional task forces and for training, according to the report, which also suggests ways the Army’s unit readiness process could be used to achieve quick and more robust responses for not only the National Guard, but also for active-duty units.

The efforts by civilian and military responders in the days following Hurricane Katrina and the breach of the levees was unprecedented, with nearly 50,000 people rescued, 80,000 evacuated, and more than 230,000 provided with emergency shelter at the peak. About 45,000 National Guard and 21,000 regular Army and Marine personnel responded to Mississippi and Louisiana in the 2 weeks following Hurricane Katrina.

The magnitude of the Katrina response is analogous to potential requirements in other catastrophic emergencies, according to the RAND report. So changes made as a result of Hurricane Katrina can be helpful for a broad range of such future emergencies.

The study, titled “Hurricane Katrina: Lessons for Army Planning and Operations,” is available at http://www.rand.org.

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