Saturday, September 03, 2005

Who's In Charge? Disaster Response Chain of Command Explained

There is so much name and blame-calling about who is responsible for this or that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The New Orleans situation is especially subject to major criticism. The media has done an exceptionally bad job of explaining this matter to the public.

Based on listening to a local radio interview with the head of the Oahu/Honolulu emergency disaster (Civil Defense) response team, I think I can recall the gist of what was said.

First: The local authority, usually a mayor, is in charge of all emergency planning, preparation and response. A mayor has the power to declare states of emergency, evacuation, law enforcement and even has the power to request the state governor to activate the National Guard. This is usually done in consultation with state authorities (ie. Governor and state Civil Defense teams) so as to coordinate the needs of different municipal entities.

Any request for Federal assistance comes from the Mayor or, in the case of multiple municipal needs, the governor. Mayors remain the authority in charge of all aspects of emergnecy response unless 1. They delegate the authority to someone else, or; 2. Are deemed unable to carry out this responsibility (for whatever cause) by State authorities.

In all of this the Federal agencies, etc. are under the command authority of the most local entity responsible. In disaster response, federal services are placed at the disposal of local authorities to be used as they deem best.

Yesterday, for example, when President Bush said that the Federal response was "not acceptable" (he later modified the comment by saying, "I am satisfied with the response. I'm not satisfied with all the results") he was not criticising his administration's response, but the local command and the inability of city and county officials to coordinate and implement an effective response.

This is why he later tactfully added that he was "not denigrating the efforts of anybody." He was, of course, denigrating the efforts of local officials. In New Orleans, especially, there appears to have been no plan of response to the present situation and no central authority to take "ownership" of it.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin has been reduced to showing his incompetence and lack of control by declaring on local talk radio yesterday, "They don't have a clue what's going on down here. Get off your asses and let's do something!" Now that's an emergency disaster response plan if I ever heard one! Com'on you'se guys! Do something! Do something! Anything! Anything that will get me off the hook! It's all somebody else's fault!

I don't know about you, but that does not sound like a General Patton to me.

Mayor Nagin has, of course, been complimented for issuing a mandatory evacuation order for New Orleans last weekend. The latest rumor on this, however, has the Mayor and Governor discussing the evacuation order when President Bush phoned and, according to Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, "personally appealed for a mandatory evacuation order" (instead of the usual voluntary one). I thought that President Bush was "out of touch" and not taking the potential problems seriously?

I understand that a National Guard General has now been placed in charge of the New Orleans mess. Mayor Nagin is now free to appear on as many talk shows as he wants so as to point the finger at every Republican in sight if chooses to do so.

But the "buck" stops with least in New Orleans. If things were done poorly, it was his responsibility, not the Bush administration.

(Note: Here in Hawaii, each city/county, such as Honolulu, which incorporates the entire island of Oahu, is responsible for its own emergency disaster response plan. These plans are then reviewed and coordinated with the state governor's office, federal agencies, National Guard, local Reserve Units and nearly U.S. Military commands...of which Oahu has many. These plans are reworked every year and are reviewed annually at a joint meeting hosted by the Mayor of Honolulu. The command and control center, from which all emergency decisions will be made in the case of a genuine disaster, is funded and maintained by the Mayor. Unless the Honolulu Mayor chooses to delegate authority to someone else, he/she, in consultation with his/her administration's Civil Defense coordinator and other pre-designated and trained state, federal and military personnel, is in charge of all emergency response on the island of Oahu. This is, or should have been, the same plan the Mayor Nagey ought to have had established in New Orleans.)

UPDATE: Captain Ed says much the same thing here & here, citing an editorial in the Washington Post.