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In analysing the U.S. disaster management system relative to the Katrina response, contrary to initial opinions, that FEMA as an institution had failed, one can argue that the fragmented nature of the federal response structure contributed significantly to the eventual catastrophe that was Hurricane Katrina. The view held by many disaster professionals of disasters as a window through which the inner workings of society are exposed; where failures to plan are shown up in impacts and corruption is exposed through its consequences such as the collapse of badly built or maintained structures, human relations are made more conspicuous through aftermath socialization and cultural traits are accentuated and subjected to scrutiny by outsiders uncannily spoke to the Katrina disaster.
The U.S. emergency response follows a tiered structure that requires the activation of the next level of response only on request. While this structure rightly places the initial response at the local level the bureaucracy for the activation of federal support could be so rigid that instead of being the shoulder to lean on it can become the hand that keeps you under, as was experienced during Katrina. Title IV -- Major Disaster Assistance Programs Sec. 401. Procedure for Declaration (42 U.S.C. 5170) of the Stafford Act 2007, require that all requests for a Presidential declaration of a major disaster be made by the Governor of the affected State. The request can
such the Governor must expend all local and State resources available under their emergency plan and despite the chaos that exist during these situations, provide information on the type and quantity of resources used or to be used and must commit to share the cost of the overall response with the federal government. Within this context one can appreciate the frustration felt by local government officials immediately after the storm, realizing that the people of Louisiana were in dire need of immediate lifesaving help but the federal system, which was designed to step in just such a situation, was bugged down on bureaucratic technicalities.
The inability of FEMA to respond effectively to the crisis was also of major issue as it represented the centrality of federal response and was charged with the coordination of response within the United States. The institutional arrangements vested in FEMA were woefully inadequate and reflected a level of incompetence within FEMA not seen since the reorganization in 1993 by FEMA’s former Director, James Lee Witt. One may therefore be pushed to ask why an organization that had responded so professionally in the past to diverse events such as floods, hurricanes and bombings (Oklahoma) could fail so miserably. The Select Committee (p.359) clearly placed the responsibility at the feet of an inefficient, ineffective and unresponsive government whose failure of initiative and leadership led to the loss of lives and prolonged suffering to the people of Louisiana.
The usurpation of FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security, literally an untested organization, did little to enhance disaster management within the U.S. as the orientation of that Department was time warped into the 9/11 attack and was fully consumed with little beyond preventing another such attack. This prevented them from accepting and recognizing the significance of Katrina as an incident with the potential to be as destructive as the 9/11 attack.
DHS and ultimately became a dysfunctional department where the experienced staff left in droves.
FEMA as a standalone organization since 1979 would have developed the norms, mores and culture to enable the development of working structures and patterns of relationships; this would have been informed and determined by the nature of its functions and environment. The induction of FEMA into the DHS, would to a large extent require the dismantling of these structures necessitating a complete change in orientation which could prove uncomfortable to many long serving members of FEMA. Over time professionalism and morale were degraded to the point many could not come to terms with the decay, resulting in an exodus of qualified and experienced staff. In this respect the Congressional Committee pointed to DHS over concentration on terrorism as a foundational cause, noting that this stymied approach led to a systematic dismantling of FEMA since 2003, where their level of authority was reduced and resources were largely unavailable to support their activities. In a PBS Frontline, in an attempt to come to terms with the level of destruction and the unnecessary loss of lives interviewed FEMA’s Director, Michael Brown, who admitted that FEMA had lost much of its status as a professional disaster and emergency management entity after moving into the Department of Homeland Security. He further noted that while the records showed that FEMA was in receipt of resources, in reality these resources were not used for the purpose destined and were being diverted to be used in other areas by other departments. In their report the Select Committee supported Browne’s statements, noting that FEMA’s staff were not only under-trained but FEMA as an agency was under-staffed, without institutional memory and was unable to learn from recent past disasters. This the Committee claimed spilled over into its operational posture
the demands of the post-Katrina crisis but worse there was little accountability for those resources provided opening the doors to rampant corruption. Further support of this analysis came from Emergency Managers and responders who had to contend with untested and untrained response teams, lack of equipment and unfamiliarity within and between teams. Some persons were meeting their team members for the first time which affected the level of response as team dynamics impacted performance which contributed significantly to FEMA’s ineffectual response. Resource diversion and exodus of qualified and experienced staff significantly reduced the institutional memory, emotional intelligence and social capital thus increasing FEMA’s vulnerability to disasters. This was manifested in the debacle that was popularized as the Katrina response.
One cannot also escape the fact that decisions at the political level contributed to this catastrophe. The disaster cycle speaks to the need for prevention, mitigation and preparation prior to any disaster event. However, these established precepts did not prevent the diversion of about 80% of funding for flood prevention in favour of the wars on terror. As a result, after 37 years of continuous improvement, work to strengthen the levees were stopped and the upgrade of contingency plans to use the Superdome in the event of a disaster was disrupted. In addition the fact that New Orleans was vulnerable to flooding because it was built below sea level and that systematic draining of the protective wetlands had been going on for some time did not help matters any. Worst yet the governing elites failed to recognize the singular importance and complexity of disaster management and its overarching relationship with all areas of government activities. Where FEMA continue to reside within the structures of DHS it will continue to lose focus and its preparedness mission will be diluted to the point where it may exist only in the
The U.S military is also an important element in the disaster management mechanism of the United States. Although a number of laws such as the Posse Comitatus Act placed some restrictions on the activities of the military within the continental U.S., over time the military has proven time and again their skills and resources are indispensable to the response effort. The military is a self-contained functional system that possesses unique skills and structures that are designed to address and survive crisis situations. The structures in place which has essentially made it the foremost technological superior fighting force within today’s world are the very same which endear it to disaster and emergency responders and allowed it to effectively address the disaster that was Katrina. Without doubt FEMA will not be able to effectively respond to a major disaster without the support of the military – to the disaster response effort it is indispensable.
It is also recognized that the military’s primary purpose is to defend the United States of America and as such must remain focused to that task. The experience of the military in Mogadishu in 1993 clearly articulated the potential vulnerabilities of a fighting force within a humanitarian situation. The indecision that underlined that operation when the troops were placed in an obvious conflict situation caused the lives of several servicemen. To a large extent they were forced to go against their training, doctrine and culture which empowered a weaker and less professional force and created the perception of a weakened and ineffective U.S. and a decaying military.
This essentially speaks to the debate as to whether military personnel undertaking missions distinctly different to their primary role and training suffer from what is described as battle readiness. While this debate raged the lessons of Iraqi and Afghanistan speaks to the need for the capacity to not only fight and win the relevant battles but to maintain the hard won peace.
when the same troops that kicked down the door with guns at the ready, come around in between these incidents with candy. More than likely they will not be remembered for the candy as the civilian population will always be expecting the Jekyll to Hyde transformation– that certainly is no way to win confidence and trust in a conflict situation as this will not only place the peace mission in danger of being derailed but will also place the troops in a vulnerable situation and in danger of possibly being killed.
Alternatively, placing the military in a humanitarian situation as was the case in Mogadishu also places the civilian population or the troops themselves at risk. In response to a situation the troops may revert to core training and cause the death of innocent civilians or fail to react in time resulting in their own demise or that of their companions.
Emergency response structures within the U.S proved over the years to be adequate legislatively but require more effort in the implementation. This is a function of training orientation, oversight and accountability – not increased involvement of the military. The failings of FEMA in the Katrina disaster cannot be seen as a simple failing by an organization but must be seen within the overall context of a systems failure. FEMA did not fail – the political leadership failed FEMA. Additionally, the federal response structure requires some overhaul to make it more responsive to catastrophic disasters.
The call for the increased involvement of the military in disaster management rested on the premise that FEMA as an organization had failed. However, if one is to accept the above then one must agree that FEMA had been decimated under DHS and existed largely in name only. What is needed is a review of FEMA, with the intent of rebuilding an effective and professional organization. The military has unique capabilities and will always be critical to the
The call for the increased involvement of the military in disaster management was largely a knee jerk political reaction to an event perceived as being a political career killer. The relevant and urgency of the topic resonated largely from the influence of the source and therefore was thought worthy of a philosophical and academic foundation. The debate was essentially a storm in a
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