Patchy comm, data links hinder DHS' response to Katrina

Aerial surveillance provided timely views of New Orleans flooding

Courtesy of NASA

The Homeland Security Department's IT response to Hurricane Katrina came under withering fire from lawmakers and independent observers, even as department officials scrambled to mobilize technology that appeared unequal to the disaster.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials themselves left the impression of being overwhelmed by the task facing them. A leader of a telecommunications team at FEMA, when asked if he was swamped, replied, 'I am past that point and I am three feet under.'

DHS officials turned away several questions about specific systems, instead issuing a cascade of press releases and briefings touting the department's disaster relief work.

For example, DHS said its National Communications System had coordinated the arrival of mobile communications vans, and arranged the delivery of satellite phones, as well as wireless phones programmed for Wireless Priority Service, to state and local government leaders and emergency responders. The NCS coordinated equipment delivery from other telecommunications companies and firms, DHS said.

But even four days after the department announced NCS' activities, communications links and information sharing among disaster response agencies were so patchy that a planeload of evacuees FEMA intended to send to Charleston, S.C., arrived instead in Charleston, W.Va.

That incident and other information about the catastrophe routinely appeared more quickly and accurately via the media, the blogosphere and amateur-radio operators than from DHS officials.

Meanwhile, land line telephone calls from outside the Gulf disaster area to Baton Rouge, La., where thousands of evacuees were sheltered or passed through, weren't connecting reliably more than a week after the storm, despite NCS' efforts.

First responders on the scene wrestled with a familiar problem: Their radios still aren't interoperable. James Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, 'The interoperability problem has been long identified. It would have required a substantial infusion of resources to address. That investment has not been made in any major city except Washington, D.C.'

Lewis added that the lack of electricity in the region had impaired the operation of technology-laced command centers.

Much of the recrimination over the Hurricane Katrina response came because FEMA and other government authorities apparently failed to take advantage of lessons learned from a computer simulation of the effects of a Katrina-like storm catastrophe on the Crescent City in July 2004.

The simulation's 'Hurricane Pam' aftermath prompted changes in FEMA's emergency response plans that should have been applied to Katrina.

After the simulation, FEMA regional director Ron Castleman said, 'Disaster response teams developed action plans in critical areas such as search and rescue, medical care, sheltering, temporary housing, school restoration and debris management. These plans are essential for quick response to a hurricane but will also help in other emergencies.'

The disaster simulation also honed the state's response plans, according to Col. Michael L. Brown, Deputy Director for Emergency Preparedness, Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
Ivor van Heerden, director of Louisiana State University's Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes, said early this summer that 'A White House staffer was briefed on the [Hurricane Pam] exercise,' according to the university. Following the meeting, he said, 'There is now a far greater awareness in the federal government about the consequences of storm surges.'

With unintentional irony, van Heerden added in a statement this spring that 'A second Hurricane Pam Exercise is planned for this summer. Agencies will be able to expand on aspects of response and recovery that were not explored before.'

FEMA had prepared for a hurricane disaster in New Orleans partly by outsourcing response planning to Innovative Emergency Management of Baton Rouge, La.

Several IEM employees gave conflicting responses and dodged questions about the Katrina emergency planning services their company had provided to FEMA. Communications outages prevented clarification by IEM.

Neither the Hurricane Pam simulation nor the IEM plans appeared to have eased the command and communication problems that arose after the storm and increased its human and economic toll, according to outside DHS experts.

'The situation with regard to technology appears to be that the technology planners and the federal government are operating pretty much in the blind,' said Stephen Flynn, the Jeanne J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council for Foreign Relations in New York.

The lesson of the multiple technology failures, according to Lewis, is that, 'things would be better if the technology worked but it would not fix the underlying organizational problems.'

The communications problems that bedeviled first responders' activities attracted caustic notices from legislators and others. Ranking members of the House Homeland Security Committee called for hearings in a letter to Government Reform Committee chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and acting chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.

'Why did the Department of Homeland Security fail to ensure basic communications capacity?' the lawmakers asked in their letter to Davis and Young.

'When the disaster struck the Gulf Coast, there was no emergency communications system available to police and emergency personnel. Satellite phones can function even in the absence of a local telecommunications network, yet this technology was not utilized,' the lawmakers wrote.

Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and ranking member Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) are launching an investigation of the Hurricane Katrina response.

'While it is too early to reach conclusions on the response of government to this catastrophe, it is increasingly clear that serious shortcomings in preparedness and response have hampered relief efforts at a critical time,' Collins and Lieberman said in a joint statement.

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