Hurricane Katrina:

Better Plans and Exercises Needed to Guide the Military's Response to Catastrophic Natural Disasters

GAO-06-643: Published: May 15, 2006. Publicly Released: May 15, 2006.

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Hurricane Katrina was one of the largest natural disasters in U.S. history. Despite a large deployment of resources at all levels, many have regarded the federal response as inadequate. GAO has a body of ongoing work that covers the federal government's preparedness and response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Due to widespread congressional interest, this review was performed under the Comptroller General's authority. It examined (1) the extent to which pre-Katrina plans and training exercises reflected the military assistance that might be required during a catastrophic, domestic, natural disaster, (2) the military support provided in response to Katrina and factors that affected that response, and (3) the actions the military is taking to address lessons learned from Katrina and to prepare for the next catastrophe.

The military mounted a massive response to Hurricane Katrina that saved many lives and greatly assisted recovery efforts but many lessons are emerging. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, disaster plans and exercises did not incorporate lessons learned from past catastrophes to fully delineate the military capabilities needed to respond to a catastrophe. For example, the government's National Response Plan made little distinction between the military response to a smaller regional disaster and its response to a catastrophic natural disaster. In addition, DOD's emergency response plan for providing military assistance to civil authorities during disasters lacked adequate detail. The plan did not: account for the full range of assistance that might be provided by DOD, divide tasks between the National Guard and the federal responders, or establish response time frames. National Guard state plans were also inadequate and did not account for the level of outside assistance that would be needed during a catastrophe, and they were not synchronized with federal plans. Moreover, plans had not been tested with a robust exercise program. None of the exercises that were conducted prior to Katrina called for a major deployment of DOD capabilities in response to a catastrophic hurricane. As a result, a lack of understanding exists within the military and among federal, state, and local responders as to the types of assistance and capabilities that DOD might provide in the event of a catastrophe, the timing of this assistance, and the respective contributions of the active-duty and National Guard forces. Despite the lack of planning, the military took proactive steps and responded with about 50,000 National Guard and 20,000 active federal personnel. Based on its June 2005 civil support strategy, DOD relied heavily on the Guard during the initial response. Active duty forces were alerted prior to landfall and key capabilities such as aviation, medical, and engineering forces were initially deployed. Growing concerns about the magnitude of the disaster prompted DOD to deploy large, active ground units to supplement the Guard beginning about 5 days after landfall. Several factors affected the military's ability to gain situational awareness and organize and execute its response, including a lack of timely damage assessments, communications difficulties, force integration problems, uncoordinated search and rescue efforts, and unexpected logistics responsibilities. Without detailed plans to address these factors, DOD and the federal government risk being unprepared for the next catastrophe. DOD is examining the lessons learned from its own reviews and those of the White House and the Congress, and it is beginning to take actions to address the lessons and prepare for the next catastrophe. It is too early to evaluate DOD's actions, but many appear to hold promise. However, some issues identified after Katrina such as damage assessments are long-standing problems that were identified by GAO after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. They will be difficult to address because they are complex and cut across agency boundaries. Thus, substantial improvement will require sustained attention from the highest management levels in DOD, and across the government.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Since we conducted our review, 10 U.S.C. 12304 (c)(1) has been amended twice--in 2006 and in 2008. However, these amendments did not respond to our Matter for Congressional Consideration and the latest revision, which occurred in 2008, returned this portion of the code to the language that was in place prior to the 2006 revision.

    Matter: In a 1993 report we suggested that the Congress may want to consider removing the statutory restriction on DOD's authority to involuntarily activate Reserve units for catastrophic disaster relief. In view of the significant military downsizing that has occurred since we first raised this matter and the need to actively engage the total force in order to meet missions at home and abroad, we continue to believe that the Congress may wish to consider lifting or modifying the mobilization restriction--10 U.S.C. 12304 (c)(1)--that limits reserve component participation in catastrophic natural disasters.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Our report noted that U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) had a functional plan--DOD's least detailed type of plan--in place at the time Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Our report noted that this plan had been effectively used to respond to disasters prior to Katrina but noted that the lack of detail presented many challenges in the catastrophic wake of Hurricane Katrina. Following the issuance of our report, NORTHCOM upgraded it's defense support to civil authorities (DSCA) plan from a functional plan to a more detailed contingency plan. This contingency plan now contains scalable capability packages that have been developed in conjunction with pre-scripted Requests for Assistance from the states. Furthermore, DOD and DHS have developed 25 Pre-scripted Mission Assignments for use in a catastrophic event and DOD has put a standing DSCA Execute order (EXORD) in place. This EXORD gives the NORTHCOM Commander wide authority to direct DOD response efforts. Finally, emergency response officials from all the states have participated in 2-day visits to NORTHCOM to receive briefings on the NORTHCOM plans, and NORTHCOM has also sent representatives from its standing Joint Forces Headquarters to the states to brief emergency response officials, when requested.

    Recommendation: Based on the above action by the National Guard Bureau to identify the National Guard units that are likely to respond to domestic disasters under state-to-state mutual assistance agreements, the Secretary of Defense should establish milestones and identify the types of scalable federal military capabilities and the units that could provide those capabilities in response to the full range of domestic disasters and catastrophes covered by DOD's defense support to civil authorities plans.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Following the issuance of our report the National Guard Bureau (NGB), in conjunction with the states, developed a Joint Capabilities Database. The database contains an inventory of the types of capabilities and units that are available to respond to domestic disasters. The database is maintained through a partnership between NGB J5 (plans) and the Joint Force headquarters in each of the 54 states and territories. NGB has funded contractors in the states to maintain this database. In addition, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) has a web-based tracking system that is visible to emergency operations centers in all the states. This tracking system shows all assets, including National Guard force that are requested and sent between states via emergency management assistance compact (EMAC) agreements. Trough its connections with the states, the NGB receives this information. The NGB Joint Operations Center provides daily situation reports that include data from the NEMA tracking system and executive summaries of key events to US Northern Command (NORTHCOM). This information flows to NORTHCOM through a permanent NGB desk that was established in the NORTHCOM Command Center following Hurricane Katrina. This information is also made available to U.S. Transportation Command and U.S. Joint Forces command.

    Recommendation: Since National Guard troops can join response efforts as part of the federal response or as part of the state response under mutual assistance agreements, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Chief of the National Guard Bureau to work with the state governors and adjutants general to develop and maintain a list of the types of capabilities the National Guard will likely provide in response to domestic natural disasters under state-to-state mutual assistance agreements along with the associated units that could provide these capabilities. In addition, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Chief of the National Guard Bureau to make this information available to the Northern Command, U.S. Joint Forces Command, and other organizations with federal military support to civil authority planning responsibilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Our report noted that U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) had a functional plan--DOD's least detailed type of plan--in place at the time Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Our report noted that this plan had been effectively used to respond to disasters prior to Katrina but noted that the lack of detail presented many challenges in the catastrophic wake of Hurricane Katrina. Following the issuance of our report, NORTHCOM upgraded it's defense support to civil authorities (DSCA) plan from a functional plan to a more detailed contingency plan. DOD in conjunction with DHS has developed a damage assessment concept of operations that uses both aircraft and ground assessment teams and utilizes pre-coordinated initial assessment options from both NORTHCOM and U.S. Strategic Command. DOD has also developed communications packages that will be used to support first responders, small staffs, and large staffs. DOD has also taken a number of steps to increase coordination between NORTHCOM and the National Guard Bureau, which will help facilitate the integration of active and reserve component forces. (See the text for the other recommendations.) In addition DOD has put a standing DSCA Execute order (EXORD) in place. This EXORD gives the NORTHCOM Commander wide authority to direct DOD response efforts. A number of steps have also been taken to address the search and rescue (SAR) coordination concerns that arose during Hurricane Katrina. NORTHCOM's Air Force component command is in the process of standing up a Joint Personnel Recovery Center for large-scale SAR operations. In 2009, the National SAR committee, which is led by the Coast Guard with DOD participation, published a revised Catastrophic Incident SAR addendum to the National Response Framework, and in 2010 the committee issued a National SAR manual. With regard to logistics, DOD has identified DOD installations that FEMA can use for Operational Staging Areas and Mobilization Center Operations during disasters or catastrophes. Since Katrina, NORTHCOM has held annual hurricane conferences with participation from other federal agencies, states, and local government officials. It has also participated with these other players in exercises that are based on 15 national planning scenarios These planning scenarios are largely based on catastrophic events. Scenario 10 is a major hurricane, like Hurricane Katrina. Other planning scenarios deal with catastrophes such as major earthquakes or nuclear or biological attacks.

    Recommendation: In view of the fast approaching 2006 hurricane season and other natural and man-made threats that could result in a catastrophe at any instant, the Secretary of Defense should establish milestones and expedite the development of detailed plans and exercises to fully account for the unique capabilities and support that the military is likely to provide to civil authorities in response to the full range of domestic disasters, including catastrophes. The plans and exercises should specifically address the use of reconnaissance capabilities to assess damage, use of communications capabilities to facilitate support to civil authorities, integration of active component and National Guard and Reserve forces, use of search and rescue capabilities and the military's role in search and rescue, and role the military might be expected to play in logistics.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The National Response Framework replaced the National Response Plan but DHS currently has 15 Planning Scenarios. These planning scenarios are largely based on catastrophic events. Scenario 10 is a major hurricane, like Hurricane Katrina. Other planning scenarios deal with catastrophes such as major earthquakes or nuclear or biological attacks. US Northern Command (NORTHCOM) is DOD's lead for federal Defense Support to Civil Authorities (DSCA)in the event of a domestic catastrophic event. Since our report was issued NORTHCOM, has developed and refined its DSCA plans and has participated in several exercises based on the 15 DHS planning scenarios. These exercises, which included civil authorities at all governmental levels, have helped clarify the proactive functions the military will be expected to perform in the event of a catastrophic incident.

    Recommendation: Given the expected heavy reliance on the military during catastrophes, the Secretary of Defense should provide the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security with proposed revisions to the National Response Plan (NRP) that will fully address the proactive functions the military will be expected to perform during a catastrophic incident, for inclusion in the next NRP update.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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