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August 30, 2008

What's wrong with this Hurricane?
Posted by Moira Whelan

Gustov 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.



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It suprises me that the admministration's negelect in giving FEMA the necessary funds to repond to emergencies has not been a campaign topic especially after Katrina. The Republicans talk so much about national security, but yet they cut funding for agencies such as FEMA, who are must reponsible for the protection of the American people in case of a natural emergency or terrorist attack.

It is all well and good to state that FEMA worked so much better under Clinton, but that is rather disingenuous as Clinton's FEMA never had to deal with a Katrina-sized disaster. Praising an athlete in practice is one thing, but it's irrelevant if she's never played in a game.

@Howl: You gotta be kidding me. FEMA worked fine for several administrations, not just Clinton's. Is that the only argument conservatives have -- noun, verb, Bill Clinton?

You must remember that FEMA's approach to everything changed radically with the reorg after 9/11.

FEMA "played" in many "games" -- Hurricane Andrew, etc -- without the kind of major incidents seen in Katrina post-reorg.

I think there's a little bit more here worth considering. First, unless things have changed dramatically in the last year, it's not the head of FEMA that's in charge of domestic response, it's the Secretary of Homeland Security. (See HSPD 5, "The Secretary of Homeland Security is the principal Federal official for domestic incident management.") Chertoff can, and does, delegate that role to a Principal Federal Official during such incidents but he does not always delegate it to the head of FEMA. He did for Katrina, which is why Brown(ie) was so roundly criticized -- his agency failed to prepare for the storm, and *HE* failed as the incident manager.

Finally, DHS and NORTHCOM have a fairly close relationship, and I'm not sure it's fair to say that "nobody in emergency management even knows what NORTHCOM does." Part of the reason they were established was to coordinate civil support missions that involve the military, including the National Guard. And given the Secretary's responsibilities in a domestic incident ("...coordinating Federal operations within the United States to prepare for, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies"), they could be playing this role as a part of the coordinated Federal response.

Finally, HSPD 5 specifically does NOT require State or local governments to request help before the Secretary takes on this coordinating role among Federal agencies.

Let me be crystal clear -- I'm not defending the DHS/FEMA response to Katrina, the preparations for Gustav, or the current SOP for Federal coordination to domestic incidents. I'm just saying there's a veritable maze of authorities, roles, and responsibilities at play here. (Caveat: My knowledge on this is somewhat dated, and new authorities may be in play!)

It's also a subtle, but clear, indication that we're coming under military rule, a sort of martial-law lite.

I just realized there are two "finally"s in my post above. Woops!

Seargents worry about tactics. Coronels worry about strategy. Generals worry about logistics. I find most of you article woefully ignorant about what the military actually does.

In the wake of a natural disaster, you want a hot meal, a cot, a blanket, and a tent. There is no one on earth better equipped to deliver those things then the US military, because winning wars is about exactly those same things.

Meanwhile, FEMA is mostly about the financial aspects of a disaster.

In other words, get off your civilian high horse. Getting the military involved early to deal with what could be a cat 5 hurricane could be exactly the right thing to do. The military has more knowledge about transportation, health care, food, and transportation than any civilian agency.

In short the guys at FEMA are bankers, the guys in the military are truck drivers. In a natural disaster, you need truck drivers, not bankers.

Another way to put it. The Army has to deliver a hot meal, a cot, etc. while people are shooting at them. So what's a little wind and rain. :-)

What a stupid article! 1) Bush doesn't want a 9/11 commission, but Dems insist & we get one with a report & recommendations. 2) Bush says he will implement some recs. but not the dumb ones like subordinating FEMA to DHS. (He says this will ruin FEMA; remember?!) Dems scream that all recs. MUST be implemented, & Bush stupidly relents. Now that FEMA is ruined, it's clearly ALL Bush's fault.

Northcom isn't supposed to have authority in this case, even if requested by State. The so-called "insurrection act" amendment to the Posse Comitatus of 1807 was repealed in 08 by H.R. 4986.
Curently the law reads:
Under 18 U.S.C. § 831, the Attorney General may request that the Secretary of Defense provide emergency assistance if civilian law enforcement is inadequate to address certain types of threat involving the release of nuclear materials, such as potential use of a nuclear or radiological weapon. Such assistance may be by any personnel under the authority of the Department of Defense, provided such assistance does not adversely affect U.S. military preparedness.
I don't see Hurricanes anywhere I look.
Maybe I'm not looking in the rught places.

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