December 13, 2005

December 13, 2005 | Commentary on Federal Budget

How to Keep Making Progress

It was, to put it mildly, a bad day for America. As one veteran responder put it, getting aid into New Orleans and other devastated areas after Hurricane Katrina hit was like "landing an army at Normandy with a little less shooting."

When Americans needed America most, we let them down. When catastrophes occur, our resources must be mobilized immediately. And Americans need to be confident that leaders at all levels of government are doing the right things to make them safer. On both counts, the nation fell short.

Part of knowing what to fix, however, is knowing what not to fix. And there were things that went right. America's military was a case in point.

When local and state assets are overwhelmed during a disaster, it is appropriate for military assets to be brought in to bridge the gap until civilian responders can handle the situation. And that did happen.

The U.S. Coast Guard, a uniformed military service that is now part of the Department of Homeland Security, rescued more than 33,000 people during and after the storm, often under harrowing conditions. And the Pentagon pitched in as well. By Aug. 31, the Defense Department had started medical airlifts, and the USS Bataan had arrived off New Orleans. Almost 50,000 National Guard forces deployed to support hurricane relief, and active duty troops from the 82d Airborne and 1st Cavalry, more than 17,000, pitched in as well.

A second amphibious assault ship and an aircraft carrier arrived on Sept. 6. Twenty ships, 360 helicopters and 93 fixed-wing aircraft were in the affected area by Sept. 7. It was the largest and fastest deployment of U.S. military forces in support of a natural disaster in the nation's history.

Few in the media seemed to notice the difference they made. If the nation had really responded as ineptly as the press suggested, then the death toll would have been catastrophic. But it wasn't. Hundreds of thousands were evacuated before the storm, tens of thousands were rescued after it hit, and millions received aid, shelter and comfort in the storm's wake.

There are lessons to be learned from Katrina. At the outset of a disaster, when state and local governments are overwhelmed, and before the vast resources in the private sector can be brought to bear, there is an important role for "military" responders. They must, however, be organized, trained and equipped properly for the task, so that in cases like Katrina they can get there and make a difference in hours instead of days.

A good place to start would be to consider modernizing the Coast Guard. Today, young Coast Guard men and women are busier than ever. But they are heading into harm's way with a fleet of ships, planes and helicopters that are rapidly wearing out. Coast Guardsmen were deployed into the teeth of Katrina on ships old enough to collect Social Security. There's no excuse for that.

Before Katrina, the House voted to cut the Coast Guard's budget for new equipment. There's no excuse for that, either. Congress should double the amount given to the Coast Guard for new ships and aircraft, equipment that could have saved even more lives.

Congress and the administration also need to ensure that we have a robust, fully manned and well-equipped National Guard. And the Guard should have units organized and equipped to meet contingencies exactly like Katrina or any other large-scale disaster whether its caused by a terrorist or a natural disaster.

Maybe next time, then, more things will go right.

James Carafano is a senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer