The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and the slow federal government response have sparked a review of the U.S. military's role in disaster relief, even as civilian and military officials prepare to deal with the impact of a new hurricane in the same part of the country. U.S. defense officials have suggested that changing the rules that limit the military's ability to act inside the United States could result in a more effective response the next time there is a disaster on that magnitude, whether natural or man-made. But some experts are not so sure that's a good idea.
Defense Department officials say they are preparing to respond to expected damage from Hurricane Rita, which could hit some of the same areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina. It is the same process they used to prepare for Katrina, well before it hit the southern U.S. Coast and caused extensive flooding in New Orleans. They move rescue and relief teams, supplies and aircraft to the edge of the expected storm zone. They send command and control teams to coordinate relief efforts. And they order U.S. Navy ships to be close by and ready to help.
Defense officials say their response once Hurricane Katrina passed was very fast. But they acknowledge there was some confusion over who was in charge and under what authorities the military was operating.
Civilian agencies from the local and federal governments are in charge of disaster relief, and although they can call on the military to help, there are strict legal limits on what active-duty soldiers can do inside the United States. Generally speaking, in a disaster the military must be invited to operate by each state governor, who will usually first make use of local National Guard troops under his or her direct control. And when active duty troops controlled by Washington do get involved, they are limited to humanitarian relief and are not allowed to help with law enforcement - something that was badly needed in New Orleans in the early days of the crisis, before the National Guard was able to deploy.
President Bush has ordered a review of disaster relief procedures, and last week, the chief Defense Department spokesman, Lawrence DiRita, called the current laws that limit the military's role "archaic." They were enacted in the period immediately after the U.S. civil war in the mid-1800s, when southern states, which had lost the war, were worried about a federal takeover of local authority.
But in New Orleans, one local disaster relief official says he is not worried about any military takeover and would have welcomed a faster and larger military response. He is Walter Maestri, the director of emergency preparation for the part of New Orleans called Jefferson Parish.
"I don't think anybody is really that concerned with that, you know, realistically," he said. "There's no question that at least in the United States today the civilian sector is in control of all of that."
Mr. Maestri says the key is coordination with local officials like himself.
But at the University of Michigan's Center for Public Health Preparedness, Rosemarie Rowney, counsels a cautious approach. Until recently, she was in charge of public health in a county with more than one million residents near the city of Detroit.
"There are some concerns, some sensitivity, over whether or not you would want to have your active military in your community. And I think those are valid concerns that the American people need to talk over and see what that means for us as a people," said. Ms. Rowney. "I think it's a very delicate relationship because we do not live in a militaristic society. And so, it has to be a continued dialogue rather than a knee-jerk reaction to this horrible hurricane that just happened."
Other experts are even more reluctant to discuss any increased role for the military in domestic disasters. But Mr. Maestri in New Orleans says as long as there is coordination, the military should not be limited in providing help.
"In the absolutely worst case I think that would be extremely helpful in saving lives. If that were to be the case, there would have to be some very, very careful planning early on. And those plans would have to be in effect and shared with all levels of government, state and local, so that everyone understood their roles," added Mr. Maestri. "You need to plan through it so the elected local officials can and do maintain their authority because those are the folks the people have chosen to be their leaders."
Indeed, one area in which military officials say they can offer expertise is planning.
Rosemarie Rowney at the University of Michigan agrees that is a key to successfully dealing with an emergency. But she says local preparedness is the most important factor because it takes time to for help to arrive from outside a devastated area. She says that while green military helicopters flying into a disaster area can be a welcome sight, local areas need to be able to rely on their own resources in the first hours after a disaster hits, whether it is a storm, a hazardous leak or a terrorist attack.
"Local officials know fully what their capabilities are, and yeah, you would want those green [military] helicopters coming in. If you were trying to evacuate a hospital or a nursing home and you can't find them any other way, of course you would," she explained. "But it's going to take time. It's going to be a while before you could deploy those resources."
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld weighed in on the issue at a news conference on Tuesday. He said any change in the law will be up to the Congress and the president, but he indicated that in a major disaster, like Hurricane Katrina, more military involvement might be needed.
"If the first responders are victims themselves and don't exist with an extant capability to deal with a catastrophic event then obviously, one looks for some substitute for the first responders," he said.
Secretary Rumsfeld said President Bush has rightly pointed out that only the military has the ability to respond quickly, with the right capabilities and on the scale required by a disaster like Hurricane Katrina. But the secretary declined to say whether he would like to see changes in the rules that limit the military role.