The Federal Role

Some Urge Greater Use of Troops in Major Disasters

Army medics help rescue David Jackson Jr., 82, from his home in New Orleans's Ninth Ward.
Army medics help rescue David Jackson Jr., 82, from his home in New Orleans's Ninth Ward. (By Mario Tama -- Getty Images)
By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 9, 2005

The breakdown of local and state agencies that tried to respond to Hurricane Katrina has spurred fresh debate about whether disasters of such magnitude ought to be turned over to the U.S. military and other federal authorities to manage at the outset.

National plans developed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks rest on the notion that police, fire and other emergency groups are best positioned to serve as first responders. Federal agencies are supposed to function as backup to state and local ones, and military forces are meant to play a largely supporting role to civilian authorities.

But Katrina showed what can happen when the foundation of this organizational structure is quickly overwhelmed and disintegrates, according to government officials and independent analysts.

"The would-be first responders at the state and local level were themselves victims in very large numbers," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said at a news conference this week. As a result, "we had a situation that was distinctly different than in past events of this type."

Rumsfeld and other senior administration officials this week have resisted entering a public discussion of alternative approaches, insisting that the focus for now stay on cleaning up after Katrina. President Bush and congressional leaders have promised investigations into what went wrong in the response to the hurricane's devastation.

But Rumsfeld said the government would likely address again the question of "lead responsibility" for the Defense Department in disaster response. He noted that the issue was critical not only in responding to a natural catastrophe but also to a terrorist attack, because reliance on local authorities has been the basis of emergency planning in both cases.

Some homeland defense specialists have argued since Katrina struck that national plans must be revised to provide for a bigger and faster federalized effort, particularly in large-scale disasters.

"Only the federal government can mobilize a national response to catastrophic disasters," said James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "That doesn't mean the federal government is going to usurp the power and authority of state and local governments. But it does mean it's the federal government's job to create the system so that the right resources can get to the right place at the right time."

There is no guarantee that a greater federal role would improve response. Both the Pentagon and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have been widely faulted for not grasping quickly enough the scope of Katrina's damage and not committing sufficient people, supplies and equipment early on.

Historically, practical as well as legal considerations have favored relying on leadership at the grass-roots level.

"The police and fire departments and local emergency-service people are, by definition, the first ones on the scene," said H.K. Park, a former defense official who worked on homeland security issues during the Clinton administration. "And they have the advantage of knowing their communities.

"There's also a legal dimension," he added, "involving states' rights versus federal rights."

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