Enewsletter: The Lessons of Hurricane Katrina
Last week, the House Select Committee established to investigate the preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina released its final report to the American people after an extensive five month investigation. I eagerly accepted this assignment because I was appalled by the faltering response and concerned about the impact the evacuation from the Gulf Coast was having on the State of Texas. I also wanted to bring my experience as a former Mayor and Member of the Select Committee on Homeland Security to the investigation.
We should not forget that Katrina triggered the largest evacuation and search and rescue operation in our nation’s history and many individuals and organizations responded heroically. However, our report makes it clear that the local, state and federal response to Katrina was a severe failure of initiative and leadership. This failure should cause Congress to enact serious reform.
I believe Congress must pull FEMA out of the Department of Homeland Security. I supported including FEMA in Homeland Security when we created the new department after September 11. But the aftermath of Katrina has led me to a different conclusion. Making FEMA an independent agency again with a cabinet level director is exactly what is needed. It is clear that FEMA’s current structure and situation within Homeland Security is not working.
Furthermore, our report validates the need for what I call a “Super Disaster Response Plan.” The Super Disaster Response Plan would only be triggered in catastrophic events – when local and state governments are overwhelmed and becoming victims or have failed – like the situation we had in New Orleans and Louisiana with Katrina. Our country’s emergency management system is designed to have our local and state governments as the first and second layers of emergency response. This system should remain because it works in most cases. But when this structure fails, we must have a new system that triggers a federally-led response, with the military as the lead.
Why the military, you ask? The military is the only federal entity with the assets and capability to stabilize a catastrophic situation quickly. For example, the New Orleans Convention Center was an unplanned shelter of last resort for many stranded hurricane victims and had become a desperate situation in the days immediately following the storm.
Five days after landfall, the National Guard formed a task force to secure and evacuate the convention center, had the entire convention center secure within half an hour of arriving and began distributing food and water immediately. The complex was completely evacuated by the following afternoon.
If we had a Super Disaster Response Plan, the convention center could have been evacuated much earlier in the week because an increased federal and military role would have kicked in sooner.
When all else fails, the federal government must be able to step in with clear authority.
The Department of Homeland Security, in an effort to respond to some of the lessons learned from Katrina, has released what it calls a “retooling” of FEMA so it is better positioned to succeed in the next disaster. A major portion of FEMA’s plan calls for the hiring 1,500 new permanent FEMA employees.
Homeland Security completely misses the point. More people and federal bureaucracy will not fix FEMA. What is needed is better leadership. In many ways, the size and bureaucracy of the federal government contributed to the inadequate response to Katrina, so I am not convinced hiring more federal employees helps solve the challenges we are facing.
Fort Worth’s experience is a good example. FEMA sent an employee from Seattle to be its representative in Fort Worth, which took in well over 20,000 evacuees into its shelters following the storm. Seattle is more than 2,000 miles from Fort Worth. He was a capable individual, but he did not know Fort Worth, who his points of contact were at City Hall or what resources the community could contribute. He was forced to learn a new city and help manage an emergency at the same time. This is a tall order for the most capable individual, and it simply does not work.
There is no time for a learning curve in a disaster, and especially in a catastrophic disaster like Hurricane Katrina.
What we should do is empower our local emergency managers. Almost every community has an emergency management official who knows local capabilities and limits. In future emergencies, FEMA should “deputize” these individuals to serve as the liaison between FEMA and the local and state government. Wearing dual hats, these officials would be much better situated to do this job effectively and would dramatically improve communication between the federal, state and local governments.
There are many other failures. Communications systems at all levels of government were incompatible with each other causing major communications failures following the storm. The political leadership in New Orleans and the State of Louisiana, fully informed of Katrina’s destructive potential, failed to protect or use local assets to completely evacuate New Orleans prior to landfall. Local and state officials in Louisiana failed to maintain law and order. As a result, all these tasks fell on the federal government and FEMA in an unprecedented way.
As Congress reconvenes next week, I plan to get to work with my colleagues to implement changes to the federal disaster response system that I believe the Select Committee’s report compels. We must take significant steps to ensure that our nation is prepared not only for the upcoming hurricane season, but also for, as horrible as the thought may be, another surprise terror attack.