Who Is in Charge of What During Major Catastrophes Still Unanswered

By Stew Magnuson
When a natural or manmade disaster strikes the United States, which federal agency is in charge of the response?

The answer is all of them and none of them, former Commandant of the Coast Guard retired Adm. Thad Allen suggested recently.

Homeland Security Presidential Directive-5, released in 2003, said that the Department of Homeland Security secretary takes command of a non-defense related catastrophe. A presidential policy directive released in April this year reiterated this.

“Tell that to [Health and Human Services] in a pandemic,” Allen said at the National Defense Industrial Association homeland security conference.

Since his retirement in 2010, Allen has emerged as a leading voice in the disaster response community.

He speaks from experience. In 2005, he was commandant when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. (See correction below.) The Coast Guard, with its noteworthy performance rescuing victims of the storm from New Orleans rooftops, was one of the few federal agencies that emerged from the disaster with a burnished rather than tarnished reputation.

Allen was on the cusp of retirement in April 2010 when the BP Deepwater Horizon platform exploded and began to gush petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano appointed him national incident commander.

“One of the most difficult things I had to do was explain to everybody that I was the national incident commander. You think that sounds pretty easy, right?

“I was not the BP incident commander, the Louisiana incident commander. I was not the Republican incident commander. I was not the Democratic incident commander.”

Allen found bureaucrats from myriad agencies on the scene, all with statutory authorities and duties that they were determined to carry out. Like HHS in the hypothetical pandemic, in this case, it was Fish and Wildlife, part of the Department of Interior, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a Department of Commerce agency. Both agencies had similar statutory duties to monitor the gulf’s wildlife. The Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (independent of any department) both had jurisdiction over what seafood could be harvested.

In addition, the federal government didn’t have any direct authority over BP, which was ultimately responsible for capping the well. Nonprofits and state officials were also on the scene.

The BP spill points to the complexity of modern day disasters, Allen said. His three-pronged approach to responding to a catastrophic event is: understanding the complexity of a situation, building resiliency into society and bringing together a “unity of effort.”

That differs from “unity of command,” which is something that may never be achieved, Allen said. The federal government does not operate like the military. Ask a private in the Army what his chain of command is, and he should be able to explain it all the way up to the commander in chief, the president of the United States. Ask a Fish and Wildlife functionary about his chain of command to the president, and he will likely answer with a blank stare.

Some have called for a Goldwater-Nichols type act for the federal government. The law that forced the four services in the military to fight jointly “is never going to happen,” Allen said, “so get over it.”  

Unity of effort means that all these myriad stakeholders must come together to reach a single goal. In the BP oil spill, Allen came up with a mission statement that the different entities could rally around. In this case it was controlling the well, stopping the flow of oil and optimizing the response for the oil that was out there.

“When dealing with large complex problems, whether a disaster or a public policy issue, if you’re going to take a polarized position based on what you think ideologically, you’re never going to get to unity of effort,” he said.

There are political disincentives for one cabinet officer supporting others, he said.

As the bureaucratic infighting and turf wars continue, the public will be expecting results. There is a disconnect between what citizens expect from the government and what it can actually perform, Allen said.

“It will be very rare — if ever — that a single entity, organization, government agency, department, or nongovernmental organization can completely solve the problems in our world today,” he said.

HSPD-5 addressed which agencies were in charge of what during terrorism related disasters. But there is increasing acknowledgment 10 years after 9/11 that Mother Nature is a more consistent threat to the homeland. Hurricanes, earthquakes and floods are regular occurrences, while terrorism strikes are anomalies.

The United States has already broken a record in 2011 for the most billion-dollar natural disasters in one year with 10. Presidential Policy Directive-8, released in April, took a more all-hazards approach, but stated that nothing in the directive could “alter or impede the ability to carry out the authorities of executive departments and agencies to perform their responsibilities under law and consistent with applicable legal authorities and other Presidential guidance.”

The National Preparedness Goal, a Homeland Security document released a week after Allen spoke, listed the five areas the nation needs to address: prevention, protection, mitigation, response and recovery. The all-hazards approach included natural disasters, pandemics, technological or accidental accidents such as dam failures or chemical spills, terrorist attacks and cyber-attacks.

The natural disasters can be as complex as anything man creates, Allen maintained. The eye of Hurricane Katrina struck several miles east of New Orleans in Mississippi. But the Army Corps of Engineers-built levees in the city failed, and a major U.S. city was flooded. Allen likened the results to a weapon of mass destruction hitting the city.

Adding to the problem was a lack of resiliency. The city had dense housing and many impoverished, elderly, or disabled residents, who could not evacuate even if they desired.

“The event does not create the pre-conditions,” Allen noted.

The Tohoku earthquake in Japan in May is another example of how complex the world is becoming. It evolved from an earthquake to a tsunami and then a nuclear disaster.

Allen is concerned about another potentially complicated threat: solar flares. The next solar maximum, a period of increased solar flares, is expected in 2013, and forecasters warn that these storms may be stronger than usual. For most of human history, the ejection of highly charged particles from the sun was not a concern. There were no electrical grids, interoperable communication systems or rings of satellites circling the Earth that society depends on to move Internet and voice packets. The magnetosphere absorbs most of this energy.

Does anyone understand the implications of a powerful solar storm striking Earth and potentially knocking out power grids? he asked.

“We know less about the human built world than the natural world,” Allen said.

There is one example of the government coming together in a unity of effort. The Y2K computer glitch was one of the “most successful non-events in history,” Allen maintained. “We may never know what would have happened if the government had not taken the steps, but it shows what can be accomplished when there is a unity of effort and a deadline,” he said.

Matthew Bettenhausen, former director of the California emergency management agency, is a believer in the all-hazards approach to disaster response. During his tenure under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, he had to deal with wildfires, earthquakes, a pipeline explosion and riots. Resiliency must first be instilled at local levels — police and fire departments, he said.

“This country works best, and is designed to work best, if you build from the bottom up,” he said. The more capable local departments are, the less likely it is for incidents to escalate, he said. Unfortunately, with federal grants for local first responders shrinking and municipalities hurting financially, cuts are taking a toll on first responders. Fire stations are being put in mothballs, and personnel are being laid off. (See related story here.)

Resiliency is also an individual responsibility.

“Government is going to be overwhelmed in a major disaster, and you do have a responsibility to yourselves and your family to be prepared,” Bettenhausen said.

The National Preparedness Goal said: “Individual and community preparedness is fundamental to our success.”

No politicians will get elected running a campaign based on preparing for disasters, he noted. But they can lose their jobs if they bungle a response.

“Your legacy and reputation can be destroyed by dropping the ball on homeland security and emergency management,” he said. Kathleen Blanco, former governor of Louisiana, is an example. Her response to Katrina was seen as lacking, and she did not run for reelection.

Even in the nation’s capital, where the federal agencies that are charged with responding to disasters are headquartered, there is no “unity of command” when it comes to potential catastrophes, officials said at the conference.

Who makes the call to evacuate the city in the event of a terrorist attack or other calamities?
Bill Lynch, director of the office of protection services at the Smithsonian Institution, said it “has not been determined.”

Many follow the advice of the office of personnel management since there are so many federal workers in the district. But it couldn’t make an all-encompassing evacuation order. Assistant Chief Patrick A. Burke of the Metropolitan Police Department believes it should be the mayor.

When terrorists struck on 9/11, those working the district were left to make their own decisions on whether to shelter in place or head home. Ten years later, that may still be the case.

A relatively minor earthquake that was felt in the capital region Aug. 23 could be a harbinger of things to come. The tremor sent workers scurrying from office buildings. Cellular phone service was overwhelmed, and residents and workers who evacuated buildings could not communicate with loved ones.   

“People, regardless of the situation, just want to get out of their office buildings, go home and be in their safe zone,” Burke said.

Yet most residents of the region, even though it is a potential terrorist target, are not prepared for disasters. Everyone, regardless of where they live, should be able to live on their own for at least 72 hours, experts at the conference said. It will take at least that long for a federal response.

Meanwhile, the greater capital region recently had the dubious distinction of reaching number one on the worst traffic in America list. That’s on a normal workday. What happens if a major structure like the 14th street bridge, or another major escape route, is blocked? he asked.

Allen said if there is no unity of effort in these scenarios, then the government may be able “to do some good.” But ultimately, it will fall short of the American people’s expectations.

 “These things are not insurmountable,” he said. “They tend to be more policy, cultural and organizational problems than anything else. But frankly if we don’t have ... a more open, frank conversation about solving some of these problems, we … are not going to be able to do the things we are required to do,” Allen said.            

* Allen directed Coast Guard search-and-rescue operations, but was not commandant in 2005.       

Topics: Homeland Security, DHS Leadership, Disaster Response

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