Friday, September 09, 2005

Should we "modify existing jurisdictional authority to give the Pentagon functional first-responder status?"

Daniel Henniger at the WSJ also wonders if the military should become the first responders or “movers” in a disaster like Katrina:

The question raised by the Katrina fiasco--and by the Pentagon's new Homeland Defense Strategy to protect against WMD attack--is whether the threat from madmen and nature is now sufficiently huge in its potential horror and unacceptable loss that we should modify existing jurisdictional authority to give the Pentagon functional first-responder status. Should we repeal or modify the Posse Comitatus Act so homicidal thugs have more to fear than the Keystone Kops? Should a governor be able to phone the Defense Secretary direct, creating a kind of "yellow-light authority" and cutting out the Homeland Security or FEMA middleman? Should presidential initiative extend beyond the Insurrection Act?

Instinct says the answer is forever no. Survival suggests we had better talk about it.

Read the whole piece, apparently the military was preparing a week before the storm:

According to accounts provided by several sources involved with preparations for Katrina, the Pentagon began tracking the storm when it was still just a number in the ocean on Aug. 23, some five days before landfall in Buras, La. As the storm approached, senior Pentagon officials told staff to conduct an inventory of resources available should it grow into a severe hurricane. Their template for these plans was the assistance DoD provided Florida last year for its four hurricanes.

And a week earlier than this, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld issued an executive order delegating hurricane decision authority to the head of the Northern Command, Adm. Timothy J. Keating. Four days later, as the tropical storm soon to be named Katrina gathered force, Adm. Keating acted on that order.

Before the hurricane arrived in New Orleans, Adm. Keating approved the use of the bases in Meridien, Miss., and Barksdale, La., to position emergency meals and some medical equipment; eventually the number of emergency-use bases grew to six. And before landfall, Adm. Keating sent military officers to Mississippi and Louisiana to set up traditional coordination with their counterparts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. As well, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England ordered the movement of ships into the Gulf.

By the Pentagon's account, it carried out these preparations without any formal Katrina-related request from FEMA or other authorities. The personnel behind the massive military effort now on display in Louisiana--airlift evacuation, medical, supply, and the National Guard--was on alert a week before the hurricane.

Another sign that people are thinking the military may be best suited for dealing with a disaster of this magnitude is that embattled FEMA head, Michael Brown has been replaced as the head of the Feds onsite relief efforts by Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad. W. Allen.

However, Henniger does bring up the important issue of our long held federalist traditions. States do have a role here and can serve as a balance against the feds exercising too much power. And we should be careful about rushing judgments and solutions, because that is what created the Department of Homeland Security, which may turnout to be too unwieldy to respond to the threats it was created to handle. Though it seems a more streamlined response with a clear chain of command would save more lives.

However, FEMA seems to have done an acceptable job dealing with smaller disasters in the past, so what are the chances of another disaster of this scale occurring? There are several other cities potentially at risk from major disasters, manmade and/or natural. And I've never been comfortable with the "hundred-year-storm (or flooding)" or "once-in-a-life-time" mentality, since neither nature nor our enemies seem to work on that schedule. I've already been in New York on 9/11, witnessed Katrina and been at ground zero for many of her evacuees, and seen two major Mississippi River floods (1973 and 1993) in my home state of Missouri, and don’t forget the tsunami, and many other disasters that I haven' been directly involved in—that already seems like enough for one lifetime, but I doubt it will be. So I think it would be wise to err on the side of preparedness (individuals should also do their own preparing). However, there are limited recourses and many demands on those resources. So we have to make choices and find a reasonable way to balance the risks with the costs.

I hope we can get past the partisan bickering long enough to ask the tough questions and develop real solutions. In the meantime, I’m going to restock my own disaster preparedness kit.


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