Lessons Learned From Katrina Pay Off in Response to Sandy

It is interesting to see how the overall state and federal response efforts to Hurricane Sandy in 2012 differed from, but were strongly influenced by, the responses seven years earlier to Hurricane Katrina – the last catastrophic hurricane to significantly involve the nation’s active-duty military forces. It seems obvious in hindsight that most if not all participants in the 2005 response – federal and state military units, state and federal decision making officials, and such national responders as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) – learned many lessons from Katrina, then applied them quickly and effectively before, during, and after Sandy made landfall.

Among the more important of those lessons were how to improve the necessarily close interactions between federal and National Guard forces. The role played by active-duty military personnel during the Sandy response was made much easier by avoiding several potential friction points experienced during and following Katrina. Title 10 of the U.S. Code pertains to federal military forces and strictly limits the actions of those forces when responding to an event under civilian control. Because of the chaotic turmoil – in both the local environment and the political arena – there was significant friction between state and federal leaders during the Katrina response.

To restore order, save lives, and start the massive recovery process required, President George W. Bush directed the U.S. Northern Command, a major DoD (Department of Defense) command, to establish an active-duty/Title 10 Joint Task Force (JTF-Katrina) to bring order out of the chaos in and around New Orleans and help the hundreds of thousands of people directly affected by the storm.

Despite JTF-Katrina’s overall success and the effectiveness of the Joint Task Force’s command structure, the perceived “takeover” by federal forces of a supposedly “civilian” matter, no matter what the circumstances, not only raised some concern among local residents and authorities but also led to well-publicized political criticism of the local, state, and federal leaders directly involved.

Nonetheless, there were many lessons – operational as well as political – learned from Katrina that could be seen in the quick and effective actions taken by federal, state, and military leaders in the early stages of Hurricane Sandy. To avoid any misperception of who was in charge this time around, and to prevent mistrust that could potentially dampen state and federal collaboration, U.S. Northern Command chose to deploy a coordination element – led by an Army National Guard general who was on federal status, rather than a (traditional or career) three-star active-duty general. In addition, the only joint task forces deployed – Joint Task Force Sandy (New York) and Joint Task Force New Jersey – were led by officers from those two states.

Working from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, a federal installation in upstate New Jersey, the principal role of the active-duty/federal military coordination element was to receive, stage, and allocate the active-duty forces arriving in local areas to carry out the missions specifically requested by the two states and approved by FEMA. In effect, the active-duty component of the response units deployed were legally “loaned” to the states, but the operations were overseen by the National Guard commanders who worked directly for the governors of New York and New Jersey.

To help facilitate National Guard and federal planning and response efforts – and prevent potential dysfunction/rivalries – U.S. Northern Command, working in close cooperation with the New York and New Jersey governors, used a “Dual Status” Commander construct that combines state and federal military leadership. The still fairly new command and control model of the Dual Status Commander is led by a state’s National Guard general, but provides him or her with a Title 10/active duty military deputy commander and staff to help meet state needs by employing active duty assets to carry out certain very important, but also legally limited, missions.

Those missions must first be requested by the state, though, and pre-approved by both FEMA and the U.S. Department of Defense. The Dual Status Commander model, used in both New York and New Jersey, effectively cushioned what may have been the most difficult political problem in the post-Katrina response operations: The difficulties that developed when Louisiana and New Orleans political leaders rejected an early federal assistance proposal to help in the post-Katrina cleanup and recovery operations because it meant, among other things, that active duty forces would have been in charge of Louisiana’s National Guard troops.

This time around, the federal government provided what proved to be a “win-win” scenario for the states – namely, an opportunity to receive help from active duty resources, but without losing political control of the response efforts and/or being upstaged by the Department of Defense or any other federal agency. That approach also found a way for DoD to provide federal military assistance to civilians in need of power, fuel, and water removal without infringing on the civilian leaders closest to the local government who might already be concerned about federal intervention into local jurisdictions.


The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Air Force, or any other federal agency.

Jamie Stowe

Major Jamie Stowe, USAF, is a medical plans and operations officer who has more than 14 years of experience in emergency planning and response operations with the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Army. He has not only completed a Department of Defense planning fellowship but also has been directly involved in numerous contingency operations – including those following Hurricanes Rita, Ike, Gustav, and Sandy, the Japanese tsunami and nuclear plant responses, and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. He holds a master’s degree in Business Administration and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.



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