Red tape keeping much of military on sidelines
Newhouse News Service
CAMP SHELBY, Miss. — A tiny fraction of the active-duty U.S. military is engaged in rescue and relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a situation that frustrated senior military officers are attributing in part to complex relationships with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"There is a tremendous amount of frustration here, that we have assets stacked up ready to go," said one officer who asked not to be identified. "All we can do is nudge the folks at FEMA and say, 'How about if we do this or that?' "
But a difficult command structure inside the military seemed equally cumbersome as officers wrestled yesterday with having to coordinate any movement of forces with dozens of supervising commands and agencies.
At the Pentagon's sweltering forward-command post in Mississippi, a television running on intermittent power showed scenes of utter devastation in New Orleans, with corpses, burning buildings and throngs of desperate refugees.
Military-action officers — who have at their fingertips thousands of heavy-lift cargo planes, medical-evacuation helicopters, warships, quick-reaction battalions of infantry and military police, as well as fleets of trucks and armored personnel carriers — watched the chaos while monitoring computer screens and answering the occasional phone call.
Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, commander of First U.S. Army, which coordinates all military involvement in hurricane rescue and relief, flew into New Orleans yesterday to kick the military effort into higher gear. Thousands of National Guard troops began delivering food, water and ice to refugees.
But officers said no military assets can be touched without an official request from FEMA.
"We are in support of FEMA; we are not running our own operation," said Maj. Gen. Dan Colglazier, deputy commanding general of the First U.S. Army. "That's one of the hazards" of a complex situation involving dozens of local, state and federal agencies.
A request from FEMA — say, water delivered for 1,000 people a day, or a dozen emergency generators and fuel at the New Orleans airport — must come through a defense coordinating officer in Baton Rouge, La., or Jackson, Miss.
It then is forwarded to the operations center at Camp Shelby, which ensures the military can meet it.
Next, it is forwarded to Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., where officials of Northern Command — which oversees all active-duty military operations in the United States — match it with specific units.
The package finally goes to the Pentagon to await the signature of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Only then can the unit be deployed, whether it's a squadron of helicopters or a dozen dump trucks.
So far, according to officers at Camp Shelby, the military had managed through this system to deploy 68 Army, Navy and Marine Corps helicopters and four ships, including the USS Bataan, an amphibious carrier; the aircraft carrier Truman; the Iwo Jima, a second amphibious ship; and the USS Comfort, a hospital ship.
Transporting soldiers to the disaster zone was slow.
As of yesterday morning, according to officers, only 12,000 Guardsmen from all contributing states were on station in Louisiana and Mississippi. That's fewer than half the 30,000 National Guard troops available for deployment from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, according to officials at the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Va.
FEMA spokeswoman Natalie Rule defended her agency's coordination efforts with the Pentagon.
"The military has been joined at the hip [with FEMA] since this storm was approaching Florida," Rule said. "We were working all together on the national coordination response in Washington as well as at the regional level 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
The maddening delays in delivering help also stem from the extraordinary, complex nature of the disaster itself. The major focus in New Orleans has swung from simple storm relief to desperate flood relief to security to emergency delivery of food and water.
"This is tough because there are so many people who want to help, and sometimes you just have to hold them off until you see how they can be used," said Air National Guard Maj. Gen. Hank Morrow, the air liaison officer with Northern Command.
Also frustrating was the shortage of information. Nowhere, for instance, did officers have access to the kind of overhead pictures provided by Predator drone aircraft in Iraq.
Air Force Col. William Duckett, an air liaison officer at Camp Shelby, said there had been discussion of asking for Predators from their chief base at Nevada's Creech Air Force Base, but no decision had been made.
The staggeringly desperate situation at the New Orleans Convention Center "wasn't anybody's priority until this morning," Colglazier said yesterday.
Once they are thrown into a difficult situation, military personnel often find ways to cut through bureaucratic tangles.
This week, for example, air officers aboard the USS Truman waived the normal requirements that Army helicopter pilots train and qualify to land on an aircraft carrier.
"There was no time for that," Duckett said. Given the desperate need to bring refugees out to the ships and return with food, water and ice, "They just said, 'Come on and land,' and they're going like madmen out there."
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company