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.
By yesterday, the Northern Command had identified a three-star general, Lt. Gen. Robert Clark, as the expected joint task force commander for the Rita response.
The Bush administration again has gone to a top U.S. Coast Guard officer to take over as the lead federal official on the ground, bypassing the Federal Emergency Management Agency leadership. Former FEMA director Michael D. Brown was heavily criticized for his agency's slow response to Katrina and was replaced by Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen as the lead federal official. Brown later resigned.
Rear Adm. Larry Hereth, commander of the Coast Guard's Fifth District, has been assigned as Allen's counterpart in Texas, prior to the storm's landfall.
The National Guard was also reacting in force before Rita's arrival. The National Guard Bureau had all of its more than 300,000 troops across the country on alert for possible response to the region, and Texas and Florida had 4,000 National Guard members on duty for the storm. In addition, two battalion task forces from Florida and one battalion task force from Illinois were poised to deploy to Texas if needed.
Nearly 1,400 Texas National Guard members were sent back to their home state from Louisiana to help with the Rita response, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) authorized the activation of as many as 5,000 Texas National Guard members, half of the state's available guard.
For Katrina, the National Guard had about 5,000 troops in Louisiana and Mississippi before the storm, and Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, who leads the bureau, anticipated needing more and had about 11,000 troops there within days. McHale said the effort had to be done "on the fly" to back up overwhelmed local first responders.
"While we're still chest-deep in Katrina, a brand new major threat is coming to the region," said Jack Harrison, a National Guard spokesman. "That's something I don't think we've ever had to do."
The governors of Texas and Louisiana also have already lodged official requests for as many as 25,000 additional federal troops. For Katrina, President Bush did not order significant numbers of federal troops into the region until about a week after the storm's landfall.
The early evacuation orders in Texas should make an enormous difference because there will be fewer victims, said James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. At the same time, military and civilian leaders may be more willing to work together because neither wants to re-experience the failures of Katrina.
"The military is always reticent to push itself on the civilians, and maybe that inhibition has gone away," Carafano said. "When everything collapses, the first thing they're going to say is, 'Where is the cavalry?' That's what happened in New Orleans."