Hurricane Katrina Lessons Learned

Yesterday the White House released its after-action report on the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. The report, over 200 pages long and with 125 recommendations, takes the right approach, focusing on the appropriate role of the federal government: building a national response system that supports state and local governments and increases federal capacity to respond to catastrophic disasters. Congress should work with the Administration to see that the report’s recommendations are carried out.

The Report

The report contains four main elements: perspectives on how the federal government has responded to previous disasters, a chronology of events from August 29 to September 5, an extensive analysis of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, and a comprehensive set of recommendations.

The report’s analysis and recommendations respect the constitutional principle of federalism. Its focus, then, is on preparing the federal government to respond to catastrophic disasters when state and local governments are overwhelmed, but not by usurping their roles or authority. Four specific recommendations illustrate what needs to be done:

Create a Regional Structure. The report calls on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to “develop and implement Homeland Security Regions that are fully staffed, trained, and equipped to manage and coordinate all preparedness activities and any emergency that may require a substantial Federal response.” Structured according to the risks and needs of their regions, these offices should also coordinate preparedness efforts.

Transform the National Guard. The report calls on the state National Guards to “modify their organization and training to include a priority mission to prepare and deploy in support of homeland security missions.” Federal agencies, meanwhile, need to incorporate the Guard into planning and preparation for the federal response to catastrophic disasters.

Strengthen the Public Health Response. The report urges the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to “lead a unified and strengthened public health and medical command for Federal disaster response.” HHS should develop a robust and realistic federal medical response plan for catastrophic disaster, including tracking and deploying federal public health and medical assets. As well, the report recommends moving the National Disaster Medical System back into HHS from DHS.

Create a Culture of Preparedness. The report challenges DHS to “make citizen and community preparedness a National priority. To facilitate this initiative, Cabinet Secretaries and other prominent National public figures (e.g. the Surgeon General) should serve as spokespersons to promote citizen and community preparedness.” During Katrina, individuals, communities, churches, and other groups proved their capabilities. It is the individual’s responsibility to have a plan, know the community plan, and step up to the plate during a catastrophic disaster.