WASHINGTON – The military's response to Hurricane Katrina (search) was the largest and fastest in U.S. history, but it was hampered by an early disconnect with state and local authorities, a senior Pentagon official said Wednesday.
Paul McHale, the assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, said the military should have learned more from its experience in previous natural disasters, including Hurricane Andrew in south Florida in 1992.
Communication with state and local authorities in Louisiana and Mississippi was so poor in the hours immediately after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29 that military commanders had to use couriers to transmit messages, McHale said.
"Early situational awareness was poor, a problem that should have been corrected following identical damage assessment challenges during Hurricane Andrew," McHale said in a group interview with Pentagon reporters.
"Military command and control was workable, but not unified," he said. While National Guard planning was well executed, he said, it was not well integrated with the Pentagon's Joint Staff and Northern Command (search).
"We performed well, but we intend to get better," McHale said.
He said that Joint Task Force-Katrina (search), which was created to coordinate the federal military response in Louisiana and Mississippi, would have only about 250 active-duty personnel remaining by the end of this week. Later, U.S. Northern Command, which oversaw the military response, issued a statement saying the task force was shut down Wednesday.
Northern Command said Col. Tony Daskevich, who arrived in Louisiana on Aug. 27, two days before Katrina's landfall, will coordinate all further Defense Department relief effort there for as long as it is needed.
At its peak, the task force had 22,000 military personnel from all services, McHale said. They were in addition to as many as 50,000 National Guard troops that operated there under the state governors' command.
"With that drawdown toward the end of the week we recognize that the mission of Joint Task Force-Katrina is now approaching what we believe to be a successful conclusion," McHale said. The task force commander, Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, left the Gulf Coast on Tuesday to return to his normal headquarters at Fort Gillem, Ga. (search), where he is commander of the 1st Army.
McHale denied that President Bush ever proposed to Gov. Kathleen Blanco (search) of Louisiana or Gov. Haley Barbour (search) of Mississippi that Honore take charge of all military forces in those states, including the National Guard. Instead, Bush proposed that Honore be "dual hatted," McHale said — putting Honore in direct charge of the federal troops while also having him command the National Guard troops under the direction of the governors.
Both governors resisted that approach. Honore ended up commanding only the federal troops, while the adjutant generals of Louisiana and Mississippi retained command of National Guard forces under the governor's control. McHale said this arrangement worked well.