To many along the Gulf Coast, the oil spill response is Katrina… with a difference.

With Katrina, says Mark Riley, an official in Louisiana’s Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Department, the problem was that the federal government showed up with its “hurricane bag” and found a disaster.

This time, they showed up with “oil spill bag and found a catastrophe.”

And after a week surveying the federal response to this latest disaster, one certainly gets the impression that the feds, though anxious to help, have brought a knife to this shootout.

By law, the Coast Guard is responsible for coordinating Washington’s response to spills of national significance—SONS. And many Louisianans have a soft spot for the agency.

After Katrina, the blue-clad men and women of the Coast Guard were the first—and by all accounts, most effective—federal responders on the scene. They rescued 33,000 people.

Just as Katrina was no ordinary hurricane, so Deepwater Horizon is no ordinary oil spill.

And the Coast Guard has never had to coordinate anything this big. The state was ready to go on day one. The Coast Guard was not.

Before the well exploded, the entire service had only about 150 oil spill experts. It takes nearly that many people to make coffee at the BP facility in Houma, La., that now serves as central command for recovery operations.

Seriously, the place is teeming with about 1,000 people. Before the explosion, the Coast Guard seldom thought about handling anything bigger than the next Exxon Valdez.

The entire Coast Guard only has about 50,000 active and reserves, and it seems most of them are on the Gulf. Still they are too few—and under-powered to deal with the BP mega corporation on one hand and the alphabet soup of federal agencies on the other.

As for the states… they’re caught in the middle.

Compounding the problem: The Coast Guard is principally a sea service. Yet much of the disaster requires coordinating land operations—like moving, tracking and distributing five-million feet of boom to block, channel, or soak up spilled oil.

The Coast Guard is skilled at operating jointly with other military services and coordinating with the Department of Homeland Security.

But a lot of the essential partners in this operation—from private contractors based in Alaska to auditors from BP corporate—are people the Guard knows only by name badge or business card.

At Houma, the players wear different colored vests—green for finance, another color for operations, planning, safety and so on—to indicate what they do.

Houma looks like a combination of angry blue-ant hill (the Coast Guard contingent) and a beehive of colored vests scurrying in every direction—posting and pondering how to tackle every spill sighting.

Despite the buzz of activity, progress often seems glacial.

When a Louisiana Parish wants to do something, it must get permission by typing its request on an Internet site called the Web EOC. The request gets routed to the State Emergency Operations Center, but all Mark Riley can do is forward it to Houma.

There the Star Chamber of the Coast Guard and BP decide what is worth doing.

If a permit is required, the request gets handed to the Corps of Engineers, which proceeds to herd up all the federal cats needed to get sign-off.

If the request goes to the state National Guard, it gets routed to the state Joint Operations Center and from there to the unit.

To the state’s credit they have pressed BP and the Coast Guard to decentralize some of the response. Forward Operating Branches have now been established in the parishes for quick assessments and response, but it took weeks to get the Coast Guard to buy off on the idea.

In some cases, it seems, neither the state nor the Coast Guard can expedite the federal permitting process.

Louisiana pressed vigorously for permission to build rock dams at Grand Isle to block oil from drifting ashore. It took about a month to get an answer: No.

The locals were astonished. It was as though Eisenhower had asked to launch D-Day and on July 6, 1944, FDR called to say no.

There’s great wisdom in the water-cooler advice: “Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way.” So far, Washington hasn’t decided which course of action it will pick.

If the administration wants to lead, it should back the Coast Guard by sending in a senior political official commissioned to get all the federal agencies on war footing.

Unless it shifts gears and goes proactive—fast—the administration risks turning a disaster into a full-blown catastrophe.

James Jay Carafano is senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation.

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