Chapter Chapter 4
Section Federal Incident Management
Federal Incident Management
The magnitude of the storm’s destruction presented three immediate challenges for the Federal government. First, the sheer amount of destruction over such a large area created an enormous demand for emergency assistance such as fuel, medical supplies, food, shelter, and water. This demand, coupled with the austere conditions throughout the Gulf Coast following Katrina’s landfall, exceeded FEMA’s standard disaster delivery capabilities and processes. Mr. Scott Wells, who served as Deputy Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO) in Louisiana, later testified to Congress that “the response was not robust; it was not enough for the catastrophe at hand.134 Second, localities needed assistance to perform emergency response operations and re-establish incident command. However, Hurricane Katrina’s impact across the Gulf Coast region limited the use of normal mutual aid agreements, which rely on neighboring cities and counties for assistance. In this case, the neighboring jurisdictions were overwhelmed themselves and unable to provide assistance elsewhere. Assistance had to come from States outside the region and from the Federal government. This requirement for an active Federal role in emergency response operations was most pronounced in New Orleans. Finally, the communications problems had a debilitating effect on response efforts in the region and the overall national effort. Officials from national leaders to emergency responders on the ground lacked the level of situational awareness necessary for a prompt and effective response to the catastrophe. This was a recipe for an inefficient and ineffective Federal response.
On August 30, Secretary Chertoff declared Hurricane Katrina to be an Incident of National Significance (INS), the first ever formal declaration of this designation.135 On the same day, he also appointed FEMA Director Michael Brown as the Principal Federal Official (PFO) for the Hurricane Katrina response.136 A PFO is designated to facilitate Federal support to the unified command structure and coordinate overall Federal incident management. The PFO also provides a primary point of contact and situational awareness locally for the Secretary of Homeland Security. However, according to the NRP, “The PFO does not direct or replace the incident command structure established at the incident, nor does the PFO have directive authority over the Senior Federal Law Enforcement Official , FCO, or other Federal and State officials.137 The FCO retains his authorities to coordinate Federal response activities under the Stafford Act.138 As PFO, Brown had no authority over the FCOs. However, as the Director of FEMA, Brown was vested with the authority to directly oversee the FCOs,139 thereby mitigating the PFO limitations. His subsequent PFO replacement had no such authority to work around this impediment, and as a result, was eventually made FCO as well. The multiple Federal coordinators with varying authorities frustrated State and local officials in the region.140
Also on August 30, DHS initiated a virtual National Joint Information Center (JIC)141 and conducted the first of what would become daily National Incident Communications Conference Line (NICCL) calls with other Federal departments and agencies.
An important limiting factor of the Federal response, as discussed in the Primer chapter, is that the Federal response is predicated on an incident being handled at the lowest jurisdictional level possible. A base assumption to this approach is that, even in cases where State and local governments are overwhelmed, they would maintain the necessary incident command structure to direct Federal assets to where they are most needed. In the case of Katrina, the local government had been destroyed and the State government was incapacitated, and thus the Federal government had to take on the additional roles of performing incident command and other functions it would normally rely upon the State and local governments to provide.
The Federal government should work with its homeland security partners in revising existing plans, ensuring a functional operational structure—including within regions— and establishing a clear, accountable process for all National preparedness efforts.
The Joint Field Office (JFO), which builds upon the State and local incident command structure, provides a single location for all Federal departments and agencies to acquire situational awareness, direction, mission assignments, and a forum to interface with other agencies.142 It is essential for ensuring that all Federal response elements possess a common operating picture and synchronize their response operations and resources. However, in the case of Hurricane Katrina, the JFO was not established at the outset, and did not function as envisioned when it was established. Key PFO staff positions had not been identified prior to landfall, which forced Director Brown to assemble his staff in the midst of the disaster.143 Brown was still working on a PFO organizational chart on the evening of August 31, almost sixty hours after landfall. Key components of the Baton Rouge JFO were still being assembled in the two weeks that followed.144
The JFO was located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, near the State of Louisiana Emergency Operations Center (EOC). A Federal coordination center was not immediately established in New Orleans. The NRP does not contemplate subordinate structures to the JFO to coordinate Federal response actions in the event of multiple or geographically widespread catastrophes (i.e., multiple “ground zeros”).145 In the absence of a command center near the major incident sites and a fully functioning JFO, agencies independently deployed resources, operated autonomously, and generated disparate reporting streams back to Federal authorities locally and in Washington.146 This resulted in an often inconsistent and inaccurate operating picture of the disaster area for senior decision makers, duplication of efforts, gaps in addressing requests for assistance, and the inefficient allocation of resources.