The rebuilding effort in the Gulf South has only just begun, but the U.S. military is already trying to absorb the lessons of Hurricane Katrina.
It doesn't take a military genius to understand that the U.S. military will play--indeed, must play--a greater role in future disaster relief operations. Despite a few snafus, it was the military that responded most effectively during those desperate days after the levee broke in New Orleans, flooding the city and stranding thousands of residents.
In preparation for future operations of this type (perhaps as early as this week, as Hurricane Rita churns toward Texas and Louisiana), military leaders are trying to capture some of the major lessons from Katrina, and incorporate them into their data base. Here's a quick list of the Top 5 lessons learned from the Air Force perspective, along with some thoughts on each one.
1. Organization--No Standing Tasking for CONUS Humanitarian Relief Ops. Despite large scale disaters in the past, including Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the U.S. military has never been formally tasked for this type of operation, and operations plans don't reflect that mission. In the wak of Katrina, this will change. Expect a number of active duty airlift, rescue, medical engineering and security units to gain standing tasking for CONUS-based disaster relief operations, augmenting civlian organizations and state agencies. Of course, it takes a while to develop a plan, so until that happens, the military response will be somewhat ad-libbed.
2. Process--Lack of Direction from JTF Katrina, So We Pushed. This represents the first, veiled criticism of Lt Gen Honore, the JTF commander, who's in charge of directing the military effort. In fairness to him, Honore was breaking new ground and working without a plan. However, some in the military chain feel he should have provided more top-level guidance. Absent that direction, they pushed assets/capabilities forward, allowing the JTF staff to pick and choose what they needed.
3. National Guard Issues--A natural disater in the CONUS can have a major impact on military operations half a world away, as Katrina illustrated. Elements of a Louisiana-based Army National Guard Brigade were released from their Iraq deployment early, to assist in relief efforts in their home state. That created holes in our combat forces that must be filled with other assets. As the hurricane illustrated, the activation of guard units for disaster relief can produce ripples that directly impact combat forces overseas. This possibility must be considered in future operational planning.
4. Lack of a Joint/Inter-Agency Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) Operational Plan. The hurricane relief effort has illustrated the value of ISR platforms in providing coverage of affected areas, allowing managers to concentrate their efforts in the most critical locations. However, initial coordination of these assets was poor, and in some cases, it was difficult for FEMA to obtain the coverage it needed. Extensive planning and training are needed to break these bottlenecks, and deliver the right products to relief managers immediately following the disaster.
5. Emergency Provisions of the Law. Despite their masterful performance in the Gulf South, there are still legal questions about what military members--doctors, medics, nurses, pararescuemen, combat swimmers, etc--can and cannot do in assisting civilian personnel. The same holds true for using intelligence assets to provide surveillance of devastated areas, populated by U.S. citizens. Collectively, these legal issues will require considerable time and effort to resolve, and some may wind up in the federal courts.
Finally, here's an unstated lesson learned, which I would post as #6: You Can't Do More With Less. It's easy to blame the war in Iraq for hindering the military's ability to respond to natural disasters, but there are other factors as well. Don't forget: Bill Clinton cut four divisions from the Army in the mid-1990s, a net reduction of more than 100,000 troops. Those units would have been valuable in securing Iraq and assisting in disater relief in the Gulf South.