Reviews fault U.S. disaster response plans

Relief plans lack needed detail, military officials say

October 24, 2005|By TOM BOWMAN | TOM BOWMAN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Military officials reviewing the government's botched response to Hurricane Katrina are criticizing disaster planning overall, saying that relief plans lack detail on how the Pentagon and other agencies should assist local leaders in the event of a hurricane or terrorist attack.

According to officials who requested anonymity, preliminary reviews by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the U.S. Northern Command, the Colorado headquarters that oversees homeland security, point to shortfalls in the National Response Plan, unveiled early this year, which was designed to end the fragmented and confused disaster-relief efforts at all levels of government.

The Pentagon report on lessons learned from the Katrina debacle also is expected to criticize the current system of training exercises for failing to provide rigorous tests of disaster response in advance of a potentially catastrophic event. Those criticisms are included in written drafts, and the overall review is expected to be completed by year's end, officials said.

The military reviews, part of a governmentwide investigation ordered by the White House, say the response plan offers no specifics on how federal agencies from the Pentagon to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, should respond to a disaster. For example, the plan does not state what type of military units or equipment the Pentagon would provide in the event of a hurricane.

Training exercises, designed to test government officials and emergency responders in advance of a natural disaster or terrorist strike, often fail to include the right people - from senior decision-makers at the national level to local officials, according to military officials familiar with the review.

Training sessions are not realistic or rigorous enough, at times coming to an abrupt end at a point where a real disaster would sorely test responders. Some officials explained that exercises do not continue because they are time-consuming and expensive.

The 100-page National Response Plan, two years in the making, was unveiled with great fanfare in January by Tom Ridge, then secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Ridge, who was replaced by Michael Chertoff in March, termed the response blueprint a "groundbreaking" document and said it would provide "vastly improved coordination" among local, state and federal governments. The plan was drafted to remedy problems with the government's response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, widely criticized as being fragmented and confused.

Mike Kucharek, a spokesman for Northern Command, declined to answer questions about the post-Katrina review, saying it is still under way and would be sent to the Pentagon in coming weeks. A defense official had little comment on the Joint Chiefs' review, saying it is expected to be completed in December.

Asked about criticisms of the National Response Plan, Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said: "I am not going to judge the plan, and I am not going to judge the operators involved in the plan." But he added, "When we're farther along in our after-action efforts, we'll be in a better place to identify if any of those lessons learned are going to be applicable to the National Response Plan in the future."

He said the department is working with state and local officials, at the direction of President Bush, to review its disaster plans, and as part of that, will review its training exercises.

Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, said he had not yet seen the two military reviews, which his office will send to the White House as part of a broader investigation of the government's response to Katrina being spearheaded by Frances Townsend, Bush's domestic security adviser. While not directly criticizing the federal response plan, McHale echoed some of the early assessments by military officials.

Practical focus

McHale said Washington needs detailed plans on what each federal agency would do in responding to 15 different types of potentially catastrophic events, from natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes to terrorist strikes using chemical or nuclear weapons.

"The National Response Plan took some major steps forward. We have to bring that high-level document down to a more practical level," McHale said in an interview at his Pentagon office.

McHale acknowledged that government training exercises "have not been sufficiently challenging." Exercises simulating chemical or biological attacks or earthquakes in major cities have engaged local, state and federal officials over several days.

The Department of Homeland Security conducts national and regional disaster simulations throughout the year, and assists state and local governments in planning their own exercises.

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