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Hurricane Katrina: Lessons for Army Planning and Operations

Hurricane Katrina: Lessons for Army Planning and Operations by Lynn E. Davis et al. RAND, 2007, 106 pp.

The US government response to Hurricane Katrina has been much maligned and mostly misunderstood by the general public. Although the military portion of the federal response did have some significant shortcomings, both National Guard and active duty forces moved rapidly into position to assist in the aftermath of the storm. It appears that most of the problems associated with the military response were in the smooth execution of disaster response plans. This RAND report offers a succinct and welcome examination of the military response to one of the most terrible natural disasters ever to strike the United States. RAND seeks to offer recommendations for improving our response to such natural disasters in advance of another such hurricane or a major terrorist attack using WMDs. With this study, it makes a significant contribution to this effort.

The book begins with a short description of the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina and an overview of how the United States is organized and structured to respond to natural disasters. The authors pay particular attention to the capabilities and limitations of National Guard and active-duty forces when conducting domestic operations. Their analysis also includes an examination of the US Army’s plans for disaster response scenarios and a critical look at how the process worked in Katrina. It concludes with a set of key recommendations.

RAND is unsparingly critical of military shortcomings in the Katrina response and, in particular, of the failure by decision makers to act more decisively when confronted with information about the dire conditions of citizens in distress, but the decision-making process of governors is outside of this work’s scope. RAND’s recommendations are the strongest and most compelling part of the work and focus on retooling the National Guard so it is organized both for overseas deployments as well as for responses to future domestic disasters via the creation of 10 Guard-standing homeland security task forces and better integration with the Army’s domestic defense planning process and command and control system for managing such interventions.

This report focuses on Army planning, and clearly its recommendations identify the National Guard and active Army as the forces most responsible for disaster relief operations. However, the authors cite several examples of air forces also playing critical roles, such as search and rescue missions. Their analysis finds that similar shortcomings in force generation and command and control occurred with air units as with their ground counterparts, but only scratches the surface in analyzing the air component. The study would have benefited from more attention to the role air forces played in logistics and transportation missions. Additionally, little mention is made of the key role played by US Navy units during the crisis. Military operations today are joint operations, and although RAND pays homage to NORTHCOM’s responsibilities for homeland defense, the primarily ground focus of this study leaves out the full joint picture of the military’s capabilities for domestic disaster response. A longer, more detailed analysis of the full role played by air, space, and sea forces, in addition to ground forces, and the way in which the Air, Coast, and National Guards can play a role in a joint response to disasters would be a logical and useful follow-on project to this book.

RAND does an effective job of critiquing the military response to Hurricane Katrina and offering important advice for correcting institutional problems with the forces and plans the United States uses in disaster response operations. The fact that a similar set of plans using the same force structure would be used for a response to a domestic terror attack involving WMDs makes this study even more critical for improving the military’s ability to respond to such threats in the future.

James M. Tucci, PhD

School of Advanced Air and Space Studies

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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