Force of First Resort

Katrina Offers Lessons for Improving the National Guard Response to Catastrophic Domestic Emergencies

By Lynn E. Davis

Lynn Davis, director of the RAND Washington office, was U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs from 1993 to 1997 and deputy assistant secretary of defense for policy plans from 1977 to 1981.

Tragic as the effects of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath were in exacting an enormous toll in death, destruction, and suffering in 2005, the catastrophe did give the United States an opportunity to become better prepared not only for natural disasters but also for terrorist attacks. Such attacks, especially those involving weapons of mass destruction, could require responses similar in nature and scale to those demanded by Katrina.

The table outlines how the effects and response requirements of several scenarios now being envisioned by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — from radiological, nuclear, and biological terrorist attacks to a major earthquake — would be generally comparable to the effects and response requirements experienced in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Thus, the lessons so painfully learned from the hurricane could help America become stronger for all types of future catastrophic domestic emergencies.

Hurricane Katrina’s Destruction and Requirements Look Similar to What the Country Might Face in Future Scenarios
   Hurricane Katrina Radiological Attack Nuclear Detonation Biological Attack:
Biological Attack:
Natural Disaster:
Major Earthquake
Scenario A large hurricane hits the Gulf Coast; a storm surge floods 80 percent of New Orleans A dirty bomb containing cesium-137 is detonated in a moderate-to-large city A 10-kiloton improvised nuclear device is detonated in the business district of a large city Aerosolized anthrax is released in a major urban area Pneumonic plague bacteria is released in 3 main areas of a major city An earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale hits a major metropolitan area and is followed by an 8.0 aftershock
Fatalities 1,349 180 Widely variable; possibly tens of thousands 13,000 2,500 1,400
Infrastructure 93,000 square miles Transportation severely hampered by checkpoints; extensive contamination of about 36 city blocks Total destruction within a radius of 0.5 to 1 mile; significant damage in a larger area Minimal damage No damage 150,000 buildings destroyed, 1 million damaged; significant transportation disruptions
Utilities 2.5 million without power Some damage near the explosion Electrical power and telecommunications out for a couple of weeks; damaged in 3-mile radius Minimal damage No damage Widespread water, gas, electricity, and communication outages
Evacuations 2,000,000 Downwind populations 450,000 or more Possibly Possibly 300,000 households
Medical Casualty care Screening and decontaminating thousands of evacuees Decontamination and short- and long-term care for tens of thousands Care for over 325,000 exposures Care for over 10,000 ill victims Over 100,000 injuries and 18,000 hospitalizations; many medical facilities damaged
SOURCE: Hurricane Katrina: Lessons for Army Planning and Operations, 2007.

The nation’s response to Hurricane Katrina and to the breach of the levees in New Orleans was both impressive and unprecedented. It was also inadequate. The most important problem was the speed with which state, local, and federal civilian organizations were overwhelmed. However, the military response also faced problems, especially in the critical first few days. These problems contributed to delays in evacuating the Superdome and convention center in New Orleans and in accomplishing search-and-rescue operations throughout the storm-ravaged areas of Louisiana and Mississippi.

The lessons so painfully learned from the hurricane could help America become stronger.

Numerous difficulties beset the military response. The initial call-up of the U.S. Army National Guard in Louisiana and Mississippi was hindered by the fact that each state had a brigade, or about 3,000 troops, redeploying from Iraq. It took more than three days for roughly 6,000 backup troops to arrive from other states, because many had neither planned nor exercised for such emergencies. As the forces flowed into the region, they lacked command and control, because it took more than a week for U.S. National Guard (henceforth national guard) division headquarters staffs to arrive. Finally, the president did not decide until the end of the first week of the response to send in active-duty land units from the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps, in part because most of these units were either overseas or preparing to deploy.

Absent changes in how the army plans for, responds to, and operates in catastrophic domestic emergencies, future responses might not look much better. To improve military disaster-response efforts, the U.S. Army should take the following steps:

  • Give state national guard units the federal mission to conduct homeland security activities, as is the case today for planning and funding counterdrug operations.
  • Create ten regional national guard rapid-reaction homeland security task forces.
  • Collocate these task forces with the regional planning offices of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
  • Create opportunities for the regional national guard task forces to train regularly with local first responders, including law enforcement officials, and other local units that are focused on counterterrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
  • Train state national guard units for rapid response not only within their states but also for emergencies in other states.
  • Prepare governors to call up state national guard units quickly and involuntarily for active-duty, out-of-state emergencies.
  • Establish plans to use the Air National Guard or commercial airlines to fly designated national guard units to out-of-state emergencies.
  • Prepare state officials to designate backup national guard units that could fill in during disaster response operations for national guard units deployed overseas.
  • Assign both national guard and active-duty army units to homeland security missions as part of the army’s routine unit-readiness planning process.
  • Prepare state and federal leaders to select quickly from a set of predefined command-and-control alternatives, giving the lead to federal or state task forces, depending on the characteristics of an emergency.
Seeds of Promise
Although it took more than a week for U.S. National Guard division headquarters staffs to arrive along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina struck on August 29, 2005, some state national guard units mobilized quickly, demonstrating the promise of creating ten regional national guard homeland security task forces to respond to future catastrophes.
August 30 August 31 September 1
Mississippi National Guard 223rd Combat Engineer Battalion travel south on Interstate 55.
Sergeant Michael Allen prepares for flight in a Chinook helicopter.
Nebraska National Guard crews load pallets of Meals Ready to Eat (MREs).
Members of the Mississippi National Guard’s 223rd Combat Engineer Battalion travel south on Interstate 55 toward Gulfport, Mississippi, on August 30, 2005, to assist with Hurricane Katrina relief.
Sergeant Michael Allen, of the Georgia Army National Guard, prepares for flight in a Chinook helicopter from Savannah, Georgia, on August 31, 2005. The Chinooks, which aided hurricane relief in Mississippi and Louisiana, can each carry more than ten tons of supplies and personnel.
Nebraska National Guard crews load pallets of Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) in Lincoln, Nebraska, on September 1, 2005, for delivery to the New Orleans area. The Nebraska Air National Guard delivered 66,000 MREs from Nebraska stocks to the hurricane-ravaged city.

Guardian of the Homeland

The U.S. National Guard is the military force of first resort for domestic emergencies. It played a central role in the response to Hurricane Katrina.

In organizational terms, the national guard is a component of both the U.S. Army (Army National Guard) and U.S. Air Force (Air National Guard). Today, state national guard units are being regularly called upon for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. But most often, national guard units function as state militias, falling under the command of state governors and senior state military officers known as adjutants general.

Creating ten national guard regional task forces would enable them to prepare for and respond quickly to emergencies across states.

Accordingly, many of the most pertinent military lessons from Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath deal with how state governors and adjutants general can improve the response of their state national guard units to out-of-state emergencies. For example, the military response to Katrina from states out-side the disaster area consisted mostly of volunteers. In the future, state officials need to be ready to call up units involuntarily, need to have ready backup units to fill in for those deployed overseas, and need to plan for how to use the Air National Guard or commercial airlines to fly units out of state when necessary.

Even if these steps are taken, the preparations made within the states will be insufficient. The national guard needs to adopt a regional focus in preparing for catastrophic domestic emergencies, such as Hurricane Katrina, that exceed the response capabilities of individual states. The best way to improve the army’s response to domestic disasters is to empower the national guard for a regional focus.

Each National Guard Task Force Would Be Responsible for One of the Ten Planning Regions Now Being Used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency

FEMA's ten multistate planning regions.
SOURCE: Federal Emergency Management Agency, About FEMA, “Regional Operations,” April 5, 2007. As of press time:
Region II serves New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Region IX serves California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, the territories of Guam and American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia.

Creating ten national guard regional task forces would enable them to prepare for and respond quickly to emergencies across states. Each task force should be responsible for one of the ten multistate planning regions already being used by FEMA (see the map). Each task force should coordinate its homeland security efforts with FEMA and other civilian relief operations. Consisting of about 900 members, each task force should be able to respond within 18 hours to support the local and regional civilian agencies that are first on the scene.

Available, Predictable, Reliable

The army’s existing unit-readiness process can be used to achieve quicker and better results from both national guard and active-duty troops. Currently, army active-duty and mobilized national guard units move through a series of scripted, predictable steps to prepare for rotations or for unforeseen contingencies overseas. This newly designed method is called the Army Force Generation process.

The army should take advantage of this process to enhance the nation’s military response to catastrophic domestic emergencies. As units enter into the readiness phase preparing them for an overseas mission, they should receive homeland security training as well. Some national guard and active-duty units could then be assigned a homeland security mission in place of an overseas mission. The number of personnel given a homeland security mission would be determined in light of currently available civilian responders.

Multiple command-and-control structures complicated the military response to Katrina. Given the uncertainty of future emergencies, designating a single command-and-control arrangement would be neither feasible nor wise. Instead, a set of alternatives needs to be defined, giving the leadership to either a federal or state task force and enabling decisionmakers to select quickly depending on the circumstances of each emergency and the capabilities of the affected states. In general, as the number of states involved or the scale of a catastrophe increases, the case for federal leadership grows stronger.

In general, as the number of states involved or the scale of a catastrophe increases, the case for federal leadership grows stronger.

Some of these initiatives will cost money. But what is needed most is a change from past perspectives and practices regarding the role of the military in responding to catastrophic domestic emergencies. That role can no longer be ignored.

Hurricane Katrina came with ample warning. A terrorist attack would not. The need for trained and ready military forces to deal with homeland security missions is no less important than it is for dealing with contingencies overseas. But domestic forces cannot become trained and ready unless they coordinate their efforts for reliable regional responses.

As an editorial in Louisiana’s Shreveport Times recently declared in response to these recommendations, “Natural disasters and manmade ones will continue to test the preparedness limits of our state and nation. Giving a federal mission for homeland security — with regional assignments — to the national guard would be a major step forward toward meeting the challenges of the unknown.” square

Related Reading

Army Forces for Homeland Security, Lynn E. Davis, David E. Mosher, Richard R. Brennan, Michael D. Greenberg, K. Scott McMahon, Charles W. Yost, RAND/MG-221-A, 2004, 99 pp., ISBN 0-8330-3673-4.
Hurricane Katrina: Lessons for Army Planning and Operations, Lynn E. Davis, Jill Rough, Gary Cecchine, Agnes Gereben Schaefer, Laurinda L. Zeman, RAND/MG-603-A, 2007, 106 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-4167-8.