September 2, 2005 | WebMemo on Department of Homeland Security

Responding to Katrina: The Realities of a Catastrophic Disaster

Americans are justifiably horrified by conditions in New Orleans. Trying to make sense of this unparalleled disaster and the unprecedented response required to meet it is no easy task. In modern memory, the United States has never experienced anything comparable; there is no standard against which the efficacy of the effort to save lives and property can be judged. The challenge has to be placed in perspective. Congress must keep the realties of responding to a catastrophic disaster in mind as it plans its next steps for recovering from Hurricane Katrina and preparing for future national crises.

 

Beyond Reality TV

Anyone watching cable news knows what needs to be done. But watching a disaster on television is one thing, and dealing with the realities on the ground is another. Getting into an area that has experienced the equivalent of a nuclear strike, absent the explosion, fire, and radiation is another. It is a monumental challenge.

 

Estimates of the numbers stranded in New Orleans range up to 200,000. Meanwhile, much of the city is under water. Virtually no infrastructure remains. The problem is not a lack of resources, will, or the organization to provide assistance. The problem is how to get it to the tens of thousands of people who need it. Additionally, every aircraft, vehicle, and team sent into the disaster has to come with its own support package, increasing the logistical burden further. The notion that under these impossible conditions the dire needs of the city could be efficiently addressed in a few days is simply ludicrous. It would be irresponsible to gauge the competence and magnitude of the national response solely by the speed with which resources are brought to bear. How quickly assistance arrives will be dictated by the realities on the ground.

 

Grading the Response

For now, here is what we can say about the challenge we face in New Orleans: This is the kind of crisis the federal government must be prepared to tackle-a disaster that exceeds the capacity of state and local governments. As such, it is a fair test for the newly established Department of Homeland Security and the national response systems put in place since 9/11. We should learn from this tragedy whether we have the right kinds of resources and programs in place to provide an adequate national response to catastrophic disaster-either natural or manmade. We should, however, temper our expectations with realism.

 

Next Steps for Congress

As Congress returns to deal with this tragedy, its first priority must be to provide immediate supplemental funding to deal with the disaster. Beyond that, it needs to assess whether we are truly taking all the right steps to build an appropriate national system to respond to catastrophic disaster. The current grant system that doles out blocks of money to states with scant regard to national priorities won't do. Today, all the fire stations in New Orleans lie under water and wreckage, as does much of the equipment they bought with federal dollars. Only a national system-capable of mustering all the local, state, federal, and private sector assets needed, built by meeting the highest national priorities first-can respond to disasters on the scale of Katrina. That is a lesson not to be forgotten.

 

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies 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