This Time, Military Hopes to Be Ready

By Josh White and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 23, 2005

The U.S. military and the National Guard were taking extensive precautions in advance of Hurricane Rita's expected landfall along the Gulf Coast, officials said yesterday, trying to quickly solve problems exposed by Hurricane Katrina while bolstering public confidence in the armed forces' ability to respond to a massive domestic natural disaster.

While Pentagon officials are still working on a comprehensive "lessons learned" document on the Katrina response, they were compelled to mobilize large forces just weeks later to send into the same region. This time, however, the forces are poised to get there sooner, just before or just after Rita hits. The military was also planning to make earlier assessments of damage and rescue needs, and military police units were being prepared to backstop local first responders should they become overwhelmed as they did after Katrina.

Following intense scrutiny for a slow federal response after Katrina slammed into Louisiana and Mississippi on Aug. 29, officials concentrated on streamlining the government's reaction. The military is taking a central role even days before this new storm.

"We have learned from the Katrina experience. Shame on us if we didn't," said Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense. "But for anyone to pretend that we have all the answers, while still involved in the initial response, would be both foolish and premature."

Defense officials have pointed to several gaps in the military response to Katrina that the Pentagon is rushing to overcome in advance of Rita.

In the aftermath of Katrina, National Guard units, local police, and active-duty forces often lacked the ability to talk to one another through shared communications systems. For Rita, the U.S. Northern Command is deploying five two-person communications teams, providing satellite phones and long-range satellite radio systems for responders.

"We all have different radios. We all use different frequencies," McHale said in an interview yesterday. "Yet we all must be able to talk to each other."

Katrina also highlighted the need for a quick and accurate assessment of storm damage so an appropriate response can be coordinated.

"Katrina taught us we can't rely on cable news broadcasts and early written reports to give an accurate assessment of the loss," McHale said. Officials had no idea of the extent of damage and flooding in New Orleans because transportation and communication systems were knocked out, and much of the area was unreachable.

For Rita, the Northern Command is poised to carry out a broader, quicker surveillance of the storm-struck area using technology such as unmanned aerial drones, satellite imagery, or P-3 surveillance planes.

This time, McHale said that "we want to do more than watch TV. . . . We want to ensure as a matter of policy we have better eyes on target."

The lack of an immediate, unified military command also slowed some aspects of the Katrina response, particularly by ground forces assigned to law and order. The Pentagon did not designate the military joint task force commanded by Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore until the second day of the disaster, when flooding had already submerged New Orleans.

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