The Guard and Katrina Relief
First, a note on timing. The National Guard Bureau had sent out it's version of "calling all cars" on August 31, 2005. The National Guard of every State, Territory, Commonwealth and the District of Columbia was put into motion. I, myself, was at my armory and ready on September 2nd - and I was part of the second wave of troops heading into LA or MS. Anyone saying that the decision to put troops into the situation was too slow is simply wrong.
When my unit arrived at the Naval Air Station/Joint Reserve Base - New Orleans on September 8, 2005 we found three things; supplies pouring in faster than they could be received or even moved away from the airfield, a mix of every branch of the Armed Forces and Coast Guard, and everyone rushing to get things done without the clearest of direction.
My unit was supposed to solve the first problem, support everyone in the second situation, and help the Louisiana National Guard solve the third situation. We managed the first very well, the second mostly so, and the third only so-so.
Our supply and services, transportation, and plans folks worked their butts off and moved mountains of food, water, fuel and other items to every place that needed it. In fact, we pushed out so much food and water, that units were asking us to stop after a couple of weeks.
A complication with the mix of forces was not just that we had Army National Guard and Air National Guard present* but that we had active component forces involved. The Navy was terrific - they were the lead service in the full time garrison of the base we were on, and they never did anything but help. However, when we worked with the Active Army and Marines, they had their own, parallel, support channels. The active forces worked from different funding sources, had different requirements for reporting, and frankly, a different mind set than the Guard. I feel that we never did succeed in meshing with the active forces, as far as support went. Operationally, I understand that things went well enough.
The biggest problem was trying to unite "54 little armies" (as one LTC described the poly-state Guard mix) under a single command, and with a single direction. Each State's command authority (Governor and Adjutant General) was the ultimate say so on when units came and went. When we ended up with too many transportation units, for example, some were withdrawn by their State. We struggled to keep up with what units were present and who was commanding or supporting which units. The only cure for this is going to be multi-state training exercises and staff planning. That is going to be hard work for the National Guard Bureau and all of us out in the states.
If the Guard committed one error, it was bringing in too many forces at first. Erring on the side of caution is forgivable, but having too many units in place led to underemployment and affected some people's morale. I was actually more frustrated in Louisiana than in Afghanistan. The solution for this is better training in what we once called "Battle Damage Assessment", and better staff workg on force structure planning.
I hope this doesn't come across as too negative. As I have mentioned before, self criticism and improvement is a big reason the US Army is the quality force it is today. Overall, Operation Crescent Relief has worked out well. I just don't want the next, similar effort to repeat our mistakes or headaches.
*I must say that I had a terrific experience with the Air Guard this operation. In 1993, during the Mississippi flood relief, they were not so easy to deal with. I have to give them their due, however.