Monday, October 03, 2005

DHS and Katrina

Sure the Katrina response didn't go as well as the American public expected. But let us not forget that when you dial 911 you don't get the White House. The majority of disasters are handled by local first responders and managed by mayors, judge executives, or incident commanders. The Army Colonel at this weekend’s conference reiterated exactly this point. It is up to communities to train individuals in disaster response and incident management.

Additionally, as in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, state and federal governments do not have massive warehouses that store resources. In the event of a massive disaster, these bureaucracies must mobilize a large amount of resources that they do not have on hand. Private industries must be contacted and the logistical details must be arranged. This takes time. And by time I mean days, not hours.

This is exactly why adequate management is crucial in disaster situations. Since its formation The Department of Homeland Security has tried to streamline disaster response by using proven best practices recommended by first responders. Through the National Incident Management System (NIMS), DHS has attempted to improve federal, state, and local disaster management and coordination. The new system is being implemented by states nationwide, but many states have not welcomed the new “federal” system. Because of this opposition a number of states remain vulnerable to catastrophic disasters. This should not be the case. Coordination and management of disasters can be improved.

As we witnessed in Louisiana, politics can play a major role in the management of disasters especially when the National Response Plan is enacted. Under the Stafford Act, the President can declare a disaster an Incident of National Significance and enact the National Response Plan. But this can only be facilitated with significant consultation between state governors and the President of the United States. For example, in Mississippi, Republican Governor Haley Barbour (and Bush ally) allowed the federal government to pre-mobilize its resources. By allowing the President to pre-position resources closer to the affected area the initial response went much better. But in Louisiana, Democratic Governor Blanco was reluctant to grant the President this authority. Without the consent of the state, the President is unable to take a significant amount of control. This can also be catastrophic.

Thus we have the appropriate structures and plans in place, but it will take time to perfect the new system. Once again, coordination between the federal, state, and local authorities will largely determine the success of future responses. Unfortunately for Americans, partisan politics may also play a role.

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