If Katrina Teaches Us Nothing Else...

The lack of a clear strategy for handling disasters can lead to chaos

Anyone who has watched the Republican-staged congressional hearings on the government's inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina has witnessed officials high and low playing the blame game. Nowhere was that more apparent than in the Sept. 27 testimony of Michael Brown, the former head of the Federal

Emergency Management Agency. Congressmen of both parties hurled at Brown's head responsibility for poor coordination of first responders, inadequate communications, and the lack of crucial equipment to help storm victims. Brown, in turn, pointed his finger at the tardy response of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, and even his Bush Administration bosses for actions that led to the stranding of thousands in the flood-ravaged city.

It's tempting to dismiss the charges of someone whose sole qualification for the most important emergency-management job in the nation appears to have been his political connections (unless, of course, you believe heading the International Arabian Horse Assn. adequately prepares one to manage epic natural disasters). But that would be a mistake. Brown is right in at least one respect: There is no clear strategy for dealing with extraordinary disaster scenarios that can easily overwhelm local officials. And the lack of such unambiguous procedures can lead to chaos.

Currently state and local officials are responsible for responding to disasters such as blackouts, hurricanes, and the like. Even when assistance from Washington is requested, the feds still can't take on functions like using the military to maintain order or public safety. But with Katrina, this traditional separation of powers failed miserably. If Brown is correct in asserting that some state and local officials weren't up to the task of managing such a massive disruption once their command and communication systems imploded, then America may need new procedures or laws that spell out exactly when and how the federal government can assume more control in such situations.

Obviously this is sensitive stuff for states and localities, who are rightly wary of federal intrusion into their responsibilities. And it becomes even more touchy when partisan politics muddies the waters. (For example, both Nagin and Blanco are Democrats, while the federal government is controlled by Republicans.) That's exactly why this process of self-examination would have been better handled by an independent panel, such as the bipartisan 9-11 Commission that investigated the 2001 terror attacks. Instead we have an investigatory process boycotted by Democrats and manipulated by both sides for political gain.

Despite this less-than-desirable structure, it's still possible for the panel to generate credible recommendations -- especially on command procedures, communications standards, and levels of equipment that should be left behind by state National Guard units called into active duty. As Katrina vividly showed, these normally local issues can quickly morph into federal concerns. And that's exactly when a strong central government must take charge.

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