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Outside View: Ike shows reform has worked

Two major pieces of legislation -- the Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 and the Implementing the Sept. 11 Commission Recommendations Act of 2007 -- contained provisions designed to get the federal government to coordinate better both before and after a disaster. The executive branch conducted its own lessons-learned effort and significantly revamped its procedures as well. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Jeff Greene
Washington (UPI) Sep 29, 2008
While the final cost of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike may not be known for weeks or even months, one thing is clear today: The federal government has learned some of the harsh lessons taught by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In contrast to their poor performance three years ago, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency actively led the federal government's pre-storm preparations for Gustav and Ike. Agencies that usually fight over turf coordinated their activities, and federal officials relied on local expertise and guidance.

In the three years since Hurricane Katrina, I have observed these improvements from several vantage points: first as counsel to the Senate's investigation into Katrina and later as a subcommittee staff director with the House Committee on Homeland Security.

Today I work for the Project on National Security Reform, a non-profit and non-partisan group that is studying how the federal government can better prepare for and respond to 21st century national security threats.

PNSR's recently issued Preliminary Findings Report revealed that an underlying problem that led to the Katrina disaster -- the federal government's failure to coordinate efforts across agency lines and the competition between agencies looking out for their own bureaucratic interests -- is widespread and detrimental to our ability to deal with unpredictable national security challenges. This includes natural disasters.

PNSR will recommend steps in October to improve our Cold War-era national security system. As Congress and the next president consider these badly needed changes, the post-Katrina reform process merits study.

In the aftermath of Katrina, the public's ire was squarely focused on FEMA. A lesser discussed but perhaps more insidious problem was the failings that occurred above FEMA, at DHS and the other agencies that did little to prepare as the hurricane approached and failed to engage until days after the storm.

The Senate's bipartisan Katrina investigation uncovered a federal government that was strangely dormant as Katrina approached. Evacuation assistance was not contemplated, no new supplies were pre-positioned, and agencies failed to coordinate about what could and should be done after the storm passed.

The problems exposed by Katrina were extensively addressed through congressional and executive branch reform efforts.

Two major pieces of legislation -- the Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 and the Implementing the Sept. 11 Commission Recommendations Act of 2007 -- contained provisions designed to get the federal government to coordinate better both before and after a disaster. The executive branch conducted its own lessons-learned effort and significantly revamped its procedures as well.

Hurricanes Ike and Gustav were major tests of these changes. As both storms approached, FEMA and DHS pre-positioned an enormous amount of supplies -- hundreds of generators; truckloads of tarps, cots and blankets; and millions of meals and cases of water.

And while the relief efforts after Ike and Gustav were by no means perfect, the intense pre-storm effort prevented a repeat of the widespread misery seen after Katrina. This is in no small part because the thousands of federal, state and local responders on the front lines facing Ike and Gustav were provided with the leadership and support that was lacking in 2005.

Why did post-Katrina reform work when so many other efforts have not? And what can we learn from this experience as we strive to remake our national security system to face the threats of the 21st century?

First, the effort worked because Congress put policy before partisanship and recognized the deadly serious need to improve preparation and response for future disasters.

And while the leadership of the executive branch was reluctant to acknowledge error after Katrina and initially resistant to congressionally mandated changes, rank-and-file employees were not. They were out ahead of some of their leaders, figuring out ways to do better next time.

Second, before Katrina both our government and many of our citizens simply could not conceive of destruction of such magnitude from a natural disaster. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had, quite naturally, led to a myopic view of the threats we face. A key part of the reform effort was changing the way we think about security.

Third, while the reflexive reaction to Katrina was to call for yet another massive structural reorganization, in the end the post-Katrina reformers took a more measured approach.

Significant changes were made where needed -- for instance, folding the DHS Preparedness Directorate back into FEMA and strengthening FEMA's regional structures. Elsewhere, though, incremental changes resulted in operational improvements, such as creating processes to facilitate interagency coordination.

The successful post-Katrina reforms -- in particular, the process that led to them -- are an example that can and should be followed as the United States considers the future of our national security system.

(Jeff Greene is deputy director of the legal working group of the Project on National Security Reform, a non-profit group. He was formerly counsel to the Senate's Special Investigation into Hurricane Katrina.)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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Hoboken NJ (SPX) Sep 29, 2008
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