Using troops and military equipment for natural disaster relief is nothing new, but the procedure for getting them in motion is complicated by federal and local law, as well as local politics and the laws of physics (the time required to mobilize and move into position troops and supplies). New Orleans, which has been getting hammered by hurricanes and floods for over two centuries, has to start the process of obtaining federal aid by appealing to the state governor. The mayor delayed doing this until, literally, the last minute. The states control any National Guard troops who are not federalized (about two thirds of Louisiana troops were not federalized, and available to the governor for the recent hurricane Katrina), and the governor must order them into action for disaster relief duties. The governor also has to request that federal assistance, including outside troops (both National Guard from other states and federals). FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) is set up to expedite this. FEMA is mainly a supervisory organization. The actual relief work is done by federal and National Guard troops, as well as many public and private relief agencies. In the case of New Orleans, any requests from the Louisiana, for federal assistance, go first to a Department of Defense headquarters already established to deal with the situation (Joint Task Force, or JTF, Katrina) at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. The staff officers there will, if need be, translate the request into language the military understands (specific types of military units, equipment and supplies), and transmit it to Northern Command headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado. There, units, equipment and material available will be matched with the request, and then the document will be transmitted to the Pentagon, where the Secretary of Defense signs it and has orders sent out to all units involved, to get moving. Many of those units may have already been alerted by Northern Command, that they might be ordered out for disaster relief operations. The activation process takes less than a day. Additional requests from the state governor are handled the same way.
The governor can mobilize National Guard troops at any time, and some governors do so before a major hurricane hits. The problem with Hurricane Katrina was that it was the largest to ever hit the city directly. Historically, about once every 35 years, a category 4 hurricane hits within 160 kilometers of New Orleans. The last category 4 to come close (but not as close as Katrina) was in 1965. Before that, water came over the levees in 1940. Each time the city got flooded, the levees were reinforced, and more pumping capacity added. Katrina was different because several levees actually failed, flooding most of the city, more than at any time in the past. This was a worst case situation, and the city government had no plan in place to deal with it. The attitude in New Orleans was to muddle through, some how.
New Orleans also has some unique leadership problems. The city is one of the most corrupt in the nation. Residents consider themselves survivors not only of the climate and weather, but also their own elected officials. The police force often provides ugly headlines about corrupt cops, and other city officials arent much better. It is a wild and lawless city even in the best of times. The murder rate in the city is one of the highest in the nation, ten times the national average, and higher than many cities in Iraq.
The New Orleans government thought they were ready for anything, but they werent. The flooding was so quick and extensive that it knocked out most communications, power and accessibility. The city was unable to muddle its way out of this one. Embarrassing details will emerge over the next few weeks and months of how the city and state officials did little, or nothing, as the city was flooded. But those who know the history of New Orleans will receive this information with a sense of dj vu. Meanwhile, the media and political partisans will invent villains to fit each of their particular agendas. In the end, however, it will be clear that the problems were a lot closer to the scene of the disaster.