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New type of commander may avoid Katrina-like chaos

The Defense Department is grooming a new type of commander to coordinate the military response to domestic disasters, hoping to save lives by avoiding some of the chaos that plagued the Hurricane Katrina rescue effort.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Defense Department is grooming a new type of commander to coordinate the military response to domestic disasters, hoping to save lives by avoiding some of the chaos that plagued the Hurricane Katrina rescue effort.

The officers, called dual-status commanders, would be able to lead both active-duty and National Guard troops — a power that requires special training and authority because of legal restrictions on the use of the armed forces on U.S. soil.

No one commander had that authority in the aftermath of Katrina, and military and civilian experts say the lack of coordination contributed to the nightmarish delays, duplications and gaps in the huge rescue effort.

"It was just like a solid wall was between the two entities," said Georgia National Guard Col. Michael Scholes, who was part of the Katrina response.

Top Defense Department officials believe dual-status commanders are the key to reducing at least some of those failures.

"We're going to be able to conduct disaster response operations on a large scale much more efficiently and effectively than we have in the past," said Paul Stockton, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense.

Dual-status commanders will provide a "unity of effort that is going to save lives on a large scale," Stockton said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, killing more than 1,600 people and causing more than $40 billion in property damage.

An unprecedented 70,000 military personnel poured into the region to help, but active-duty and Guard troops often didn't know what the other was doing, according to William Banks, a professor at the Syracuse University law school who studied the response.

Banks likened the confusion to the Keystone Kops of slapstick movies, with too many troops bumping heads at some assignments while other tasks went undone.

The evacuation of New Orleans' Superdome was delayed by 24 hours because of a lack of coordination among the Louisiana National Guard, active-duty troops and state and federal officials, Banks wrote in a 2006 critique published in the Mississippi College Law Review.

By contrast, Scholes said, active-duty and Guard troops worked together seamlessly during the 2004 G8 Summit on Sea Island, Ga., where a dual-status commander oversaw the military presence. Scholes was part of that effort as well.

The dual-status concept is simple but the execution is not. The active-duty military is limited in what it can do at home. The National Guard in each state is in charge of helping civilian authorities during emergencies.

Active-duty and National Guard troops also have distinctly different chains of command. The president is the commander-in-chief of active-duty troops, while the Guard reports through a state chain of command leading to the governor.

A dual-status commander would straddle that divide. With the approval of both state and federal officials, he or she would get temporary authority to command both types of troops and report up both chains of command.

The U.S. Northern Command, with headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., began training dual-status commanders last year. Northern Command was created after the 2001 terrorist attacks to defend the U.S. homeland and help civilian authorities handle domestic crises like Katrina

The goal is to have at least one officer in each of the 50 states and in four U.S. territories qualified and ready to be a dual-status commander on a moment's notice, said Adm. James Winnefeld, commander of Northern Command.

"So if you have a sudden emergency, earthquake, hurricane, you name it, we want to be able to have a National Guard officer able to command federal forces," Winnefeld said in interview earlier this year.

Dual-status commanders have been used in disaster drills and at planned events, including the 2004 summit in Georgia, but Northern Command officials say they haven't yet been tested in a real crisis.

Bridging the gap between active-duty and National Guard troops is tricky because of questions about who should be in charge, Winnefeld said.

"There's always been, I would say, a gentlemanly disagreement between the states and the federal government, at least for the last decade probably, on who would actually have the responsibility for commanding federal forces responding to a disaster in a state," he said.

Winnefeld believes in nearly every case the National Guard should be in charge.

"We believe that the right person 99 percent of the time to command the entire military response inside a state is a National Guard officer who is from that state, is appointed by the governor and understands that state and has been trained by the federal side to understand the federal side of this kind of response better than almost any federal officer would," Winnefeld said.

Winnefeld, who is also commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, called the dual-status program "one of my proudest accomplishments since I've been here." He will be leaving the two commands to become vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff pending Senate confirmation later this summer.

Governors like the dual-status commander concept, said Heather Hogsett, director of homeland security and public safety for the National Governor's Association.

"Governors have embraced the dual status commander concept as a way to preserve their existing authorities within their states ... The National Guard commander reports to the governor, (so) you are preserving that chain of command," she said.

Syracuse's Banks, in an interview with the AP, said disaster victims also prefer the Guard take the lead.

"If you ask them who they'd like to have protecting them and enforcing the laws in the event of a crisis, they'd rather have their neighbors....than somebody from thousands of miles away," he said.