Today, the class discussion at one point focused on the Department of Homeland Security and its “loss of legitimacy” in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This inevitably led to a short debate on whether the Department was even a good idea to begin with. Katrina certainly demonstrated to the whole nation DHS’s shortcomings and the fact that it has a ways to go before it becomes the efficient “national security and emergency response” machine everyone hopes it eventually will become. Though Katrina took place around 9 months ago, it is clear that DHS is still struggling, like New Orleans, to recover.
Yesterday (April 12) DHS Secretary Chertoff had some things to say about how his struggling Department was “reorganizing” for future operations. At the same time, though, he clearly stated his view of the role for state and local governments to play during these crises. I thought they were interesting, so here are some highlights from his speech that I think will help answer some questions raised in class about DHS’s mission (his remarks in italics, mine in regular print):
He starts off by saying disasters, natural or otherwise, are ultimately “national” responsibilities:
As we know, the major threats we face – whether a hurricane, a terrorist incident, or pandemic flu – are not just federal concerns; they are national concerns that require a national strategy and a national response effectively integrating all levels of government.
….with respect to emergency management….First and foremost, we recognize that state and local governments are the primary first responders in a disaster. And there is a good reason for this. Disasters, by their very nature, occur locally – in communities far removed from federal assets. State and local responders are the first on the scene and are most attuned to the needs and concerns of local populations.
Therefore, local governments:
...are in charge of developing emergency plans, determining evacuation routes, providing public transportation for those who can’t self-evacuate, and setting up and stocking local shelters with relief supplies.
And a state government:
…is responsible for mobilizing the National Guard, pre-positioning certain assets and supplies, and setting up the state’s emergency management functions. They are also in charge of requests for Federal support though the formal disaster declaration process.
… in an utterly catastrophic disaster like Katrina, the Federal government does have a role to play and a clear responsibility to support state and local response when you [a state’s] ability to deal with a disaster has been clearly overwhelmed…..[the Federal govt] is responsible for meeting those requests from the state – both during the disaster and in its aftermath. As we saw during Katrina, that includes logistical support for search and rescue, providing food, water and ice, establishing disaster centers and processing federal disaster claims, and participating in short- and long-term public works projects – such as debris removal and infrastructure rebuilding.
Federal abilities include:
The Coast Guard [which] rescued more than 33,000 people from flooded streets and rooftops – six times the rescues in all of 2004.
FEMA [which] also rescued 6,500 people, in partnership with state and local responders.
Secretary Chertoff goes on to list the various actions DHS has undertaken (and is continuing to undertake) to “fix” itself following the Katrina debacle. These include a host of different things; mostly resulting from government mandated emergency response reviews. The most significant is the change in leadership at FEMA. Interestingly enough, DHS has decided to try a civilian-military leadership team. The new Chief is David Paulison (civilian), and the Deputy Chief is a 3-star Coast Guard Admiral named Harvey Johnson (the CG is, of course, only under the jurisdiction of the DOD during war time).
Secretary Chertoff’s most interesting statement, and I think the one most pertinent to our discussion today, came in his conclusion when he stated in regards to FEMA:
The bottom line is this: FEMA did not fail because of where it lies on the organizational chart. We can focus on constantly rearranging the deck chairs of government every year or two and guarantee that we will fail, or we can focus on what needs to be done to fix problems. I am focused on fixing the problems…
I agree with this statement. After disasters, whether 9/11 or Katrina, often the first impulse from people, and those elected to represent them, is to go overboard with change. Do I think following 9/11 that we needed a DHS? Absolutely. As discussed in class today, another “1947” was long overdue with the end of the Cold War and other emerging threats. Has DHS worked? I think its getting there. Katrina was obviously not its finest moment and demonstrated clearly dangerous shortcomings within this new, huge bureaucracy. But it’s a start, and a much needed one. I believe if given the time, DHS will prove to be the great mediator and equalizer amongst a disparate group of formerly autonomous federal departments, each with their own mission and sometimes divergent interests to protect. Secretary Chertoff admits failure, but also asks for time. Granted, in times of emergency, time is a valued commodity. But ultimately, DHS is the result of an appropriate government reorganization at the appropriate time. To go back to the way things were, or to initiate yet another major “rearranging” in the face of failure is to lose even more of this valuable time. DHS can work and it eventually will given an ever growing set of challenges and resources. With leaders in charge, like Chertoff, willing to see these large, structural changes through to a successful conclusion, public patience, for now, is what's needed most.