WASHINGTON—Two days after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, President Bush went on national television to announce a massive federal rescue and relief effort.
But orders to move didn't reach key active military units for another three days.
Once they received them, it took just eight hours for 3,600 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., to be on the ground in Louisiana and Mississippi with vital search-and-rescue helicopters. Another 2,500 soon followed from the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas.
"If the 1st Cav and 82nd Airborne had gotten there on time, I think we would have saved some lives," said Gen. Julius Becton Jr., who was the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Reagan from 1985 to 1989. "We recognized we had to get people out, and they had helicopters to do that."
Federal officials have long known that the active-duty military is the only organization with the massive resources and effective command structure to handle a major catastrophe.
In a 1996 Pentagon report, the Department of Defense acknowledged its large role in major disasters. Between 1992 and 1996, the Pentagon provided support in 18 disasters and developed five training manuals on how to work with FEMA and civilians in natural disasters.
"In catastrophic disasters, DOD will likely provide Hurricane Andrew-levels of support and predominately operate in urban or suburban terrain," the report said. "This should be incorporated into planning assumptions."
The delay this time in tapping the troops, helicopters, trucks, generators, communications and other resources of the 1st Cavalry and the 82nd Airborne is the latest example of how the federal response to Katrina lacked organization and leadership. And it raises further questions about the government's ability to rapidly mobilize the active-duty military now that FEMA has been absorbed into the massive, terrorism-focused Department of Homeland Security.
Addressing the nation on Thursday night in a speech from New Orleans, Bush said the storm overwhelmed the disaster relief system. "It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces, the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment's notice," he said.
Several emergency response experts, however, questioned whether Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff understood how much authority they had to tap all the resources of the federal government—including those of the Department of Defense.
"To say I've suddenly discovered the military needs to be involved is like saying wheels should be round instead of square," said Michael Greenberger, a law professor and the director of the University of Maryland's Center for Health and Homeland Security.
During the last great hurricane—Andrew in 1992—the failure to get food, water and shelter to Florida and to victims highlighted the importance of quickly engaging the Department of Defense.
"For such disasters, DOD is the only organization capable of providing, transporting and distributing sufficient quantities of items needed," the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, wrote in a 1993 report. It noted that the military has storehouses of food and temporary shelters, contingency planning skills, command capability—as well as the helicopters and other transportation needed to get them to a disaster scene fast.
Indeed, the new National Response Plan, the nation's blueprint for responding to disasters that was unveiled with much fanfare in January by Chertoff's predecessor, Tom Ridge, includes a section on responding to catastrophic events.
"Unless it can be credibly established that a mobilizing Federal resource ... is not needed at the catastrophic incident venue, that resource deploys," the plan says. The plan and a 2003 presidential directive put Chertoff, as Homeland Security secretary, in charge of coordinating the federal response.
Chertoff, who aides said has been engaged in the response to Hurricane Katrina, went to Atlanta the day after the storm hit for a previously scheduled briefing on avian flu. Aides also concede that Washington officials were unable to confirm that the levees in New Orleans had failed until midday on Aug. 30. The breaches were first discovered in Louisiana some 32 hours earlier.
Greenberger, the Maryland homeland security expert, said he wonders whether Chertoff and other top federal officials understand the National Response Plan or even had read it before Katrina.
"Everything he did and everything he has said strongly suggests that that plan was never read," Greenberger said of Chertoff.
Chertoff was in Gulfport, Miss., on Friday to participate in the Harrison County National Day of Prayer and Remembrance. He took no questions from reporters. Homeland Security officials didn't return calls for comment.
Also on Friday, Bush said he thinks Congress should examine what role the military can and should play in natural disasters.
"It's important for us to learn from the storm what could have been done better," Bush said during a question-and-answer session with Russian President Vladimir Putin. "This storm will give us an opportunity to review all different types of circumstances to make sure that, you know, the president has the capacity to react."
Former FEMA Director James Lee Witt, who served under President Clinton, believes that the Bush administration is mistaken if it thinks there are impediments to using the military for non-policing help in a disaster.
"When we were there and FEMA was intact, the military was a resource to us," said Witt. "We pulled them in very quickly. I don't know what rule he (Bush) talked about. ... We used military assets a lot."
Jamie Gorelick, the deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration who also was a member of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 terror attacks, said clear legal guidelines have been in place for using the military on U.S. soil since at least 1996, when the Justice Department was planning for the Olympic Games in Atlanta.
"It's not like people hadn't thought about this," Gorelick said. "This is not new. We've had riots. We've had floods. We've had the loss of police control over communities.
"I'm puzzled as to what happened here," she said.
Scott Silliman, a former judge advocate general who's now the executive director of Duke University Law School's Center for Law, Ethics and National Security, said he was surprised that military forces weren't on the scene more quickly after Hurricane Katrina.
"I see no impediment in law or in policy to getting them there," Silliman said. "We could have sent in helicopters. We could have sent in forces to do search and rescue and to provide humanitarian aid. Everything but law enforcement."
He said someone failed to pull the trigger, but he added that an investigation is needed by an independent commission to determine who's to blame.
"They're trying to say that greater federal authority would have made a difference," said George Haddow, a former FEMA deputy chief of staff and the co-author of a textbook on emergency management. "The reality is that the feds are the ones that screwed up in the first place. It's not about authority. It's about leadership. ... They've got all the authority already."
(Knight Ridder national correspondents Shannon McCaffrey and Ron Hutcheson and Gary Dotson, of the Belleville (Ill.) News-Democrat, in Biloxi, Miss., contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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