I just noticed that the daily brief customarily done in advance of a hurricane is happening because Gustov is bearing down on the Gulf Coast…but a big shift here: the briefing is being given by NORTHCOM. So what does this tell us and why does it matter? It tells us that things are as broken as they were before Katrina.
The military, like EPA, Commerce, or anyone else, is only involved in emergency management to the point that they are requested to do so by the governor or the FEMA director (who acts on behalf of the President).
When it comes to disasters, the governor is always in charge. At any point, he or she can call in their state’s National Guard, and/or ask other governors for their help in augmenting response efforts with their national guard or other resources. If a governor is worried things are getting out of control, they ask the President to provide help through FEMA at any point before or after the incident. FEMA is then in charge of coordinating the resources of the federal government to support the governor and the state. In a sense, when FEMA is working properly—as it did under Clinton—when the FEMA director tells another Federal agency to do something, it’s as if the President is calling. The government agency is expected to deliver and cut through red tape to make things happen and happen fast.
There is no allowance or legal authority for the Department of Defense to take any sort of control or command in this scenario. In a hurricane, DoD, like Human Services, Transportation, etc, all work for FEMA and the governor of the impacted state.
This is done for a very specific and important reason: here in America, we believe that governors should have control over their own states. The federal government needs to be there to help, but they absolutely do not move in and take over. We also do not believe that the military should ever forcibly operate inside the United States unless they are under civilian control.
With NORTHCOM taking the lead on briefing the public, it’s clear the Bush Administration wants to send the message that everything is under control. Instead, to those that do this for a living, the message is clear that everything is absolutely and completely broken.
Perhaps the state governments need help. Perhaps FEMA is not up to the job. Perhaps the Bush Administration simply wants a uniform on camera, and this way of doing things is preferable to things happening the way that they should (a process, by the way, that WORKED before Bush screwed it up).
NORTHCOM taking the lead in public relations is a clear indication that nothing has been fixed in DHS and FEMA since Katrina. As a result, there is no confidence in FEMA’s ability to respond to this hurricane. With NORTHCOM at the helm, the Bush Administration either doesn’t care if, or doesn’t want, the systems to work. This Administration has issued a lot of reports since Katrina (none of which suggest the military should take control, incidentially), but no one has been held accountable and the lessons have not been learned. The priority is still on preventing embarrassment, not keeping people safe.
The other thing to remember here is that this is not a mission the military wants. Sure, they can ride in on a white horse and do what they can, but their job is to fight wars, not deal with disasters. Governors need their national guards to make this a priority (but most are in Iraq) but DoD needs to worry about the rest of the world. By dumping this on them, the Bush Administration is reinforcing the idea that the military is the only government agency that people can trust and continues to burden them with missions for which they are not trained.
The bottom line is that things will not work the way they should with NORTHCOM in charge. Governors don’t take orders from Generals. No one else in government takes orders from DoD. No one in emergency management even knows what NORTHCOM does, except come in and issue “orders” to a bunch of civilians who don't work for them.
I hope for the sake of the people on the Gulf Coast that the hundreds of civilians who want to do right by them prevail over the system that the Bush Administration has failed to fix.
H/T to Jason McNamara for this one.