...National plans developed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks rest on the notion that police, fire and other emergency groups are best positioned to serve as first responders. Federal agencies are supposed to function as backup to state and local ones, and military forces are meant to play a largely supporting role to civilian authorities.
But Katrina showed what can happen when the foundation of this organizational structure is quickly overwhelmed and disintegrates, according to government officials and independent analysts...
[Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld] said the government would likely address again the question of "lead responsibility" for the Defense Department in disaster response. He noted that the issue was critical not only in responding to a natural catastrophe but also to a terrorist attack, because reliance on local authorities has been the basis of emergency planning in both cases.
Some homeland defense specialists have argued since Katrina struck that national plans must be revised to provide for a bigger and faster federalized effort, particularly in large-scale disasters.
"Only the federal government can mobilize a national response to catastrophic disasters," said James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "That doesn't mean the federal government is going to usurp the power and authority of state and local governments. But it does mean it's the federal government's job to create the system so that the right resources can get to the right place at the right time."
There is no guarantee that a greater federal role would improve response. Both the Pentagon and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have been widely faulted for not grasping quickly enough the scope of Katrina's damage and not committing sufficient people, supplies and equipment early on.
Historically, practical as well as legal considerations have favored relying on leadership at the grass-roots level.
"The police and fire departments and local emergency-service people are, by definition, the first ones on the scene," said H.K. Park, a former defense official who worked on homeland security issues during the Clinton administration. "And they have the advantage of knowing their communities.
"There's also a legal dimension," he added, "involving states' rights versus federal rights."
Further, military forces remain constrained from a domestic law enforcement role by the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act. Though the Pentagon has committed more than 8,000 active-duty Army and Marine troops and about 10,000 sailors, it has made it clear that these forces will not perform police functions.
National Guard troops, now numbering more than 46,000, constitute a far larger share of the military presence in the disaster area. They bring two main advantages. First, they possess medical, engineering, communication and logistical skills required in relief work. Second, Guard units, when operating under the command of state governors, are not limited by Posse Comitatus.
Any move to assign greater responsibility to the Pentagon for domestic emergency management is likely to face resistance, particularly since the armed forces are already strained by the conflict in Iraq. Commanders remain sensitive to the notion of U.S. troops becoming an occupying force in their own country...