Hurricane Katrina Represents A Failure to Communicate

December 2005
By Col. Alan D. Campen, USAF (Ret.)

Officials were deprived of the tools to save their people.

The wind and waves from Hurricane Katrina had scarcely abated along the GulfCoast before Washington, D.C., itself was awash in pleas for inquiries into a failed disaster relief process. These were followed closely by legislative proposals for substantial changes in roles and missions in the departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

Whatever path these initiatives take, they should begin with an assessment of the causal role played by the information infrastructure. Further, and arguably more important, identifying which missions suffered will show where to begin improvements.

On September 14, 2005, the 9/11 Public Discourse Project issued a report asserting that the response to Hurricane Katrina was a classic failure in command and control. It found no unity of command—or more specifically, no one in charge and no unified incident reporting system to coordinate efforts of local, state and federal agencies. Fixed communications systems failed with no ready means for their restoration. This was not surprising, given that there exists no incentive for the intensely competitive information systems industry to finance ruggedness, redundancy or rapid restoration.

In addition, there was what the military would call a lack of “situational awareness” at all levels. This was not due to lack of information—the whole world could see the storm’s aftermath, but these vivid images streamed in from unofficial open sources, not as messages flowing through approved channels from authorized officials.

This absence of unity of command could have been predicted. It hardly can be called surprising in a scenario in which government and private relief agencies meet for the first time, during an unprecedented emergency, and with no agreed protocols for coordinating mutual support. One could hardly expect unity of command in a management process that evolves from the bottom up and relies on the skills of people and agencies functioning under different laws and governed by different regulations, experience and cultures.

Balancing disaster recovery on the shoulders of locals is not an inherently unsound strategy. There is no better source to sense and make sense of turmoil than those who trod the terrain daily and are accountable to their public.

But those who plan to equip first responders should hearken to the remarks of the Civil War general, NathanBedfordForest, who attributed his success to being “fustest with the mostest.” The response to Hurricane Katrina provides a precise and invaluable definition of “mostest.”

While U.S. armed forces concede dependence on vulnerable information systems, their doctrine anticipates that isolated units will continue to pursue their commanders’ objectives. The U.S. Northern Command and U.S. Coast Guard appear to have done so. They anticipated what would be needed and, while lacking detailed requests from civil authorities, pushed reinforcements forward. Many civil relief organizations also took proactive actions. But local first responders in New Orleans knew neither their commander nor the objective.

The military would call Hurricane Katrina a coalition operation—but one writ large. U.S. military forces have labored for more than a decade to establish compatible information systems, equipment and processes among a few cooperative foreign militaries. But engaging in coalition operations in domestic emergencies presents a far more complex challenge. Washington Post columnist David Broder asserts a need for “a mechanism to coordinate the work of local, state and national governments.” That mechanism also must include unknown, unexpected and even uninvited private coalition partners.

In a fortuitous paradox, Hurricane Katrina exposed both the weaknesses in information systems as well as some remedies that do not require much research, detailed study or funds. That such alternative resources are available was demonstrated by those who “just showed up” lugging their own information systems. Some of these had capabilities that proved superior to those of government.

Witnesses appearing before congressional committees responded to the question of why, given 9/11, the nation was so unprepared. They opined that the critical missing element was not information technology but enforcement of standards and protocols and centralized system control. As one witness explained, the delaying factor was not the machinery but was instead people and politics.

No plan or process existed to integrate the capabilities of volunteers who rushed to the Gulf area with Internet protocol (IP)-based systems; or the thousand amateur radio operators who brought mobile high frequency, very high frequency and ultrahigh frequency capabilities; or the software reprogrammable radios provided by the Michigan State Police; or the many available mobile satellite terminals.

The first recommendation in the 9/11 Public Discourse Report speaks to the communication needs of first responders. It urges Congress to “quickly turn over to public safety workers spectrum now used by television.”

Expanding the range of radio frequencies is one way to improve communications among first responders in localized disasters such as the Pentagon and WorldTradeCenter attacks, and Congress may be on the verge of freeing up those frequencies. But voice messaging over radios will not support collaboration among dozens of agencies across a 90,000-square-mile area—or a California earthquake zone or an area under attack from weapons of mass destruction.

The information age has turned every individual with a wireless device into a potential communications repeater node—an element in a ubiquitous and infinitely expandable and self-healing network. Wideband techniques in the 802.11 series can provide limited connectivity quickly when antenna towers topple and satellite terminals are not available. In addition, the U.S. Air Force is outfitting many of its aircraft to become airborne information nodes while performing their primary missions. Transponders affixed to rescue helicopters or balloons could blanket a widespread disaster area with information repeater nodes.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have focused renewed attention on the nation’s dependency on a frail and vulnerable information infrastructure. Senate bill S.1725 would amend the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to direct the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to establish a program to promote emergency communications capabilities among first responders. Additionally, the act would provide funds for pilot projects to develop and evaluate strategies and technologies. The phenomenon of “come-as-you-are communications” should be folded into these pilot programs.

Some observations can be gleaned from congressional testimony, media coverage and draft legislation:

• Command and control did not fail: It never existed. Unity of command must be established before the emergency.

• The term “first responders” has been redefined, initially by this emergency and now by S.1725. It now must encompass a host of private, commercial and military communications technologies and systems. Sheer complexity of management and control argues for federal leadership.

• The necessary information technology exists, but it must be included in plans and must be exercised frequently and pre-positioned.

• Logistic support should be based on push, not pull.

In no coincidence, Senate bill S.1725 provides the vehicle to accommodate all of the above.



Col. Alan D. Campen, USAF (Ret.), is a SIGNAL contributing editor.