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Volume 27, Issue 4

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Reserve Response to Search and Rescue Operations Following Hurricane Katrina

Written by  Maj. William G. Morris July 6, 2010

This research explores the response of the United States military reserve forces in regard to Hurricane Katrina search and rescue (SAR) operations conducted both during and after the disaster. The discussion begins with a brief background of Hurricane Katrina, detailing the damage the storm caused, particularly to the New Orleans, La., area. This account is followed with an explanation and history of the reserve forces, including a survey of the capabilities of the reserve force for each branch of service. Along with the reserve force explanation, this research attempts to give a better understanding of the broad differences between the National Guard and the reserve forces and how each may be and are used. Following this, the search and rescue response to Katrina is examined, highlighting the different agencies that responded to the disaster and the operations they conducted. This examination includes an overview of the problems and constraints involved with using the reserve forces during a disaster response and what the process consists of for requesting federal troops. The research closes with a review of the lessons learned during Hurricane Katrina SAR operations and how the reserves could be better utilized in future relief efforts.

The information provided in this research will prove both relevant and timely as it helps correct common misconceptions regarding the differences in the use of the National Guard and reserve forces. Once those different roles are distinguished, the research demonstrates the type of missions conducted by the reserve forces, their specific roles, and potential capabilities if restrictions were not imposed upon them. Understanding the different laws and restrictions will deepen the knowledge provided and allow for a better overall understanding of how the Department of Defense (DOD) manages the response for a domestic emergency.

In late August 2005, Hurricane Katrina moved into the Gulf of Mexico and began to strengthen into a massive storm. When it made land fall near the end of the month, Hurricane Katrina produced a storm surge and flooding that necessitated one of the largest search and rescue operations in U.S. history. Thousands of firefighters, police officers, medical personnel, and other emergency responders from across all levels of government, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the DOD, worked in concert to rescue tens of thousands of people. While much has been reported and reviewed on the many failures of the relief efforts and what could have been improved upon, this interagency response was both a miracle of efforts and a building block to enhanced SAR efforts.

Hurricane Katrina was an immense storm with winds exceeding 230 miles from its center and with speeds of up to 175 miles per hour in other areas. It impacted over 93,000 square miles of the United States as it made landfall and continued to move further inland. One immediate threat from the storm was a 30 foot surge that overwhelmed the levees protecting New Orleans, Louisiana. The levees protecting the city were breached, resulting in the flooding of about 80 percent of the city. In addition to the flooding, the destruction created an enormous amount of environmental and health hazards across the region. These hazards included standing water, oil, sewage, chemicals, and both animal and human remains. This flooding made monumental search and rescue efforts necessary throughout the city and the property damage was tremendous. According to a report by the Rand Corporation in 2007, “Katrina created over 96 billion in property damage, destroyed an estimated 300,000 homes, produced 118 million cubic yards of debris, displaced over 770,000 people, and killed an estimated 1,330 people.” The devastation was tremendous, and the people of New Orleans badly needed assistance.

As we move further into the research, it is important to understand how the reserve forces are structured. Each branch of the military has reserve forces that can be called upon to fill the needs of their active duty counterpart. While there are vast differences between the services, all reserve forces work under the same restrictions for domestic response, which severely limits the role each plays in emergency operations stateside. Additionally, reserve forces, when speaking in broad terms, includes the National Guard and the Air National Guard. However, these forces are typically under the control of the state governor and are not the focus of this article.

The United States Army Reserve (USAR) was initiated in 1908 with the passage of Senate Bill 1424. The original bill authorized the establishment of a reserve corps of medical officers and four years later the regular Army Reserves was established. The Army Reserve holds a great majority of the Army’s assets used in missions across the globe. It contains 45 percent of the Army's Combat Service Support units, 30 percent of its combat support units, and 100 percent of its training and exercise divisions. In addition to these assets, the USAR contains 100 percent of the Army's railway units, 100 percent of its enemy-prisoner-of-war brigades, 97 percent of its civil affairs units, 86 percent of its psychological operations units, 70 percent of its medical care units, and 62 percent of its chemical and biological defense capability.

The Navy Reserves traces its history to the beginning of our nation, but official legislation creating the Naval Reserve force was not passed until in 1915. Since that time, members of the Naval Reserves have played an integral part in several operations throughout the history of the United States. The mission of the Navy Reserve is to provide mission-capable units and individuals to the Navy and Marine Corps teams in the full range of operations from peacetime to war. The Navy Reserves contains approximately 30 percent of the total naval war-fighting force and is a significant force multiplier the Navy must have in order to meet its growing global commitments. The Navy Reserve consists of the Ready Reserve, the Standby Reserve, and the Retired Reserve. These reserves number more than 690,000 men and women.

The Air Force Reserve was originally established in 1948 as a "stand by" force for emergencies. It is divided into 33 wings and seven groups. The Air Force Reserve performs about 30 percent of the work load assigned to the Air Force. This includes missions such as aerial spray missions, weather reconnaissance, aero medical evacuation, aerial refueling missions, aerial firefighting missions, intelligence support, unmanned aerial surveillance missions, and training the pilots that fly in both the active duty air force and the reserves air force. These reservists fly the same aircraft as their active duty counterparts including the A-10 thunderbolt, C-130 Hercules, the F-16 fighter, and several others.

The Marine Corp Reserves was established in 1916 and currently is made up primarily of former active duty marines. These Marines go through the same intense training programs and work in the same occupational fields as their active-duty counterparts. The primary mission of the Marine Reserves is to provide augmentation and reinforcement to the active marine forces in time of war, national emergency or contingency operations. The Marine Corps Reserve is critical to the active duty Marine Corps’ ability to provide a balanced, ready force. Marine Corps Reserves currently provides more than 98,000 reservists.

The United States Coast Guard Reserve was established by the passage of the Coast Guard Reserve and Auxiliary Act of February 19th, 1941. The Coast Guard Reserve, with current numbers of more than 10,000 members, provides their active duty counterparts with flexible, highly trained, and well qualified personnel for active duty in time of war and national emergency. This reserve force is capable of responding to all threats and hazards including natural or man-made disasters or accidents. The Coast Guard’s main responsibility is the security of the ports and waterways of the United States during times of war, but they are also the lead agency for maritime search and rescue in U.S. waters. They coordinate SAR efforts of afloat and airborne Coast Guard units with those of other federal, state, and local responders. The Coast Guard’s authority is continuously in effect under federal law to conduct maritime operations such as search and rescue and port security.

As previously touched on, to further understand the complexity of the reserve system, one must understand the difference between the Army National Guard (ARNG) and the reserves, and how these differences affect mission tasks in time of a domestic emergency. Each state has its own National Guard forces under control of the governor (it is important to note that most states have cross state agreements with their neighboring states for response to domestic operations when requested). Simply, ARNG is a state force, under the control of the state governor and is used to respond to state emergencies, whereas the reserve forces are federal forces that are always under the control of the President of the United States. However, there is an even greater distinction between the ARNG and federal forces (both Active Duty and Reserves). This difference is the effect of the Posse Comitatis Act (PCA) of 1878. The PCA was invoked in 1878 in order to keep members of the Army or Air Force from being used as a posse comitatus, or common law, to execute the laws of the nation. This act is violated when federal military forces are used for law enforcement activities such as search and seizure, patrolling, and investigations of citizens of the state.

PCA does not apply to National Guard forces remaining under the control of the governor. Only when the ARNG forces are federalized does the law apply to them. Federal forces are under the provisions of the PCA for all deployments to a natural or manmade disaster from the beginning of the deployment. The only exception to this requirement occurs when the federal forces are called up under the Insurrection Act, in which a president has the authority to call federal forces during an insurrection or civil disturbance at the request of the state governor.

As Hurricane Katrina grew in size and strength in the Gulf, the Governors of Louisiana and Mississippi mobilized the National Guard Soldiers within their states to begin preparations for a massive response. Because of the preparations, it took the National Guard troops less than four hours after the storm landfall to have forces on the ground, in the water, on the streets, and in the air conducting search and rescue operations. These state National Guard troops, along with guard soldiers from many other states, were placed in all areas along the coast, with a concentrated effort in the New Orleans area. These troops conducted many operations in the area including evacuation assistance, law enforcement activities, and search and rescue operations. The National Guard response was vast as this force had more than three times as many troops on the ground as all other services combined. Although an exact number is hard to attain, the Army National Guard rescued more than 17,000 people and evacuated 70,000, while the Air National Guard evacuated more than 2,500 people with medical needs, treated more than 8,000 patients in expeditionary medical support facilities, and flew 3,350 sorties.

As the response activities continued, the resources of the local, state and regional agencies (including the National Guard) were quickly overreached. This initiated the process for requesting federal assistance. The prevailing attitude prior to this point was that the federal government should only support operations as requested because local and state government are most proficient at determining what is needed in their areas and where additional assistance is most likely required. After the request of the state, federal agencies moved in quickly and began conducting operations. Even with these additional assets, it was soon determined that support would be required from the DOD to supplement the federal agencies and state National Guard units. This was aligned with the National Response Plan (which was in effect during Hurricane Katrina), which states that U.S. Department of Defense support during a domestic emergency is normally provided only when local, state, and other federal forces are overwhelmed, and it is requested by the lead federal agency responding to the event. This is further explained in the Homeland Security Presidential Directive-5:

The Secretary of Defense shall provide military support to civil authorities for domestic incidents as directed by the president or when consistent with military readiness and appropriate under the circumstances and the law. The Secretary of Defense shall retain command of the military forces providing civil support. The Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Homeland Security shall establish appropriate relationships and mechanisms for corporation and coordination between their two departments.


This request for DOD support is a systematic approach that must follow the prescribed steps and authorizations. Except under circumstances as ascribed under the Insurrection Act, requests for military assistance must originate from the lead federal agency, typically FEMA, which operates under the Department of Homeland Security. FEMA must process the request through to the Department of Homeland Security. Requests are then submitted to the Office of the Secretary of the Defense, where they are once again evaluated using the criteria of legality, readiness, lethality, risk, cost, and appropriateness. If the request is approved based on the criteria, it will then be sent to the Joint Director of Military Support for processing, who then turns it over to the Northern Command (NORTHCOM). A 2005 CRS report to Congress explained, “NORTHCOM has the operational responsibility for civil support for most of the United States. It carries out civil support missions with forces assigned as required from all armed services, typically through the creation of a Joint Task Force (JTF)”. NORTHCOM will select a Defense Coordinating Officer (DCO) based on area of the incident and deploy the DCO to that area.

The DCO serves as the single point of contact for DOD resources and other government agencies operating in the area. All forces, active and reserve, will then be given direction from the DCO. In a response of this magnitude, where multiple agencies are working the same mission, NORTHCOM will establish a Joint Task Force (JTF). NORTHCOM established JTF-Katrina on Aug. 30, 2005, as the federal government’s command and control point to focus DOD’s support to FEMA relief efforts along the Gulf Coast.

The active military duty response was large and the units began arriving and conducting many types of operations in the search and rescue area. Active duty forces from all branches of the armed services were deployed to the area and were all working under JTF-Katrina. The most immediate of the active duty forces support came from medical aircraft providing medical support to the area. Only two days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, medical aircraft operations were underway and the USS Bataan arrived to provide additional support to relief efforts. This ship produced large quantities of fresh water, which was distributed throughout the region. It also addressed immediate medical needs because it is equipped with 600 hospital beds. Additionally, the USS Bataan has its own helicopters which are used for rescue missions.

In addition to the USS Bataan, several other Navy ships were sent from Norfolk, Virginia, including a rescue and salvage vessel and the USS Iwo Jima. By the fourth day after landfall of the storm, the 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and the 1st Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood, Texas, were placed on alert and arrived to the area two days later. As mentioned earlier, much has been reported about the slow response of the DOD to the Katrina disaster, but only one week after the storm hit the gulf coast, DOD assets in the affected area included more than 17,000 active duty personnel, 20 US ships, 360 helicopters, and 93 fixed wing aircraft. This was an extremely quick response for that amount of movement.

While the National Guard and DOD active duty forces were feverishly conducting search and rescue operations, there was very little response from the reserve forces. The reason for this roots itself in a key mobilization statute which affects the mobilization of reserve forces. Title 10 of the United States Code currently limits a reserve unit or a member of the reserve component from being involuntarily ordered to federal active duty for disaster response. As it states:

No unit or member of a reserve component may be ordered to active duty under this section to perform any of the functions authorized by chapter 15 or section 12406 of this title or, except as provided in subsection (b), to provide assistance to either the Federal Government or a State in time of a serious natural or manmade disaster, accident, or catastrophe.


Title 10 of the United States Code further states:

No unit or member of a reserve component may be ordered to active duty under this section to provide assistance referred to in subsection (b) unless the President determines that the requirements for responding to an emergency referred to in that subsection have exceeded, or will exceed, the response capabilities of local, State, and Federal civilian agencies.


This restriction also applies to the National Guard units being mobilized by the federal government, but for the Hurricane Katrina response those forces had been mobilized under state active duty which allowed them to be mobilized by the individual state governors. As a result, all the reservists who responded to Hurricane Katrina were volunteers. As simplistic as it sounds, the process of requesting and more importantly accepting volunteers was very time consuming. Because of this, traditional federal reservists made up only a small portion of the response when compared to the National Guard and active component forces.

Regardless of the restrictions and the problems that existed with getting reserve forces to the disaster site, there were troops that were able to respond. In fact, there were reserve forces from all branches of service who conducted some sort of search and rescue or disaster relief operations on the ground. These units worked with other federal agencies, active duty military personnel, National Guard units, and many local responders to save lives and bring relief to the citizens affected by the storm.

The first Army Reserve unit called up to support Hurricane Katrina relief operations was Bravo Company, 5th Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment. This aviation unit provided assistance to search and rescue operations from the air, using the helicopters assigned to their command. The unit had several missions following the hurricane, including both direct support to search and rescue operations and indirect support in other ways.

One task providing indirect support was to drop sandbags from the air in an attempt to repair the break in the levee system. This mission helped to prevent further flooding, thus indirectly supporting the search and rescue operation efforts. The unit had a variety of other missions, which utilized the Chinook (heavy lift) helicopter. These missions included carrying approximately 1,400 soldiers and rescue workers to operation sites, transporting victims that had been stranded to safer areas, and transporting cargo. The aviation company transported 115,000 pounds of internal cargo (cargo transported inside the aircraft) consisting of mostly food and water in support of relief efforts, and 1.7 million pounds of external cargo (material carried outside the aircraft). All of these missions had a direct impact on the success of the efforts on the ground.

In addition to the capabilities provided by the aviation units, the Army Reserve also had several transportation companies which responded in the wake of Katrina. These units included the 206th Transportation Company (TC), the 386th TC, the 850th TC, and 647th TC. The typical mission of a transportation company in the Army Reserve is the movement of vehicles and equipment for maneuver units in support of missions in different areas of a war zone. A transportation company is usually equipped with flatbed trailers, fuel tankers, and five ton trucks. Because of this equipment capability, these units were able to conduct a myriad of search and rescue operations while serving in Hurricane Katrina. The missions included providing humanitarian assistance, hauling food and water to displaced civilians, and removing debris. While these missions proved important, the transportation companies also had the responsibility of taking survivors of the flooding, many now without shelter, to a safe staging area where they could be evacuated to different locations.

Another type of Army Reserve unit which deployed to the New Orleans to assist with search and rescue operations was the mortuary affairs unit. Mortuary affairs units from the 49th Quartermaster Company (QM CO) in Fort Lee, Virginia, and the 311th QM CO. at Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico, both assisted with this disaster. As the name indicates, mortuary affairs units conduct missions specifically related to duties dealing with deceased personnel. These duties include recovery, collection, and evacuation, establishment of tentative identification, escort and both temporary and mass casualty interments. These units also inventory, safeguard, and evacuate personal effects of deceased personnel. The mortuary affairs units can be used to conduct searches in areas for unburied dead, hasty, isolated, or unmarked graves, personal effects, and identification media. This type of unit also assists in the preparation, preservation, and shipment of remains. These missions are not directly related to search and rescue operations but are vital jobs that must be conducted in this type of devastation. Disposing of deceased bodies will positively impact the health and welfare of the remaining population by reducing the risk of the spread of disease.

United States Air Force helicopters from the 920th Air Force Reserve Command in Patrick Air Force Base, Florida also took early part in the search and rescue efforts. The 920th flew large HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters to Jackson, Mississippi, to fly FEMA damage assessment teams to the disaster zone. These same helicopters were used to fly search and rescue missions over the disaster area. One of the primary missions conducted by this Air Force Reserve unit included hoisting survivors off of roof tops and carrying them to refugee placement areas and safe shelters.

Another mission conducted by the Air Force Reserves was spray missions over the New Orleans, Louisiana area. These missions helped to save lives and prevent suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by reducing the amount of mosquitoes and flies that were so abundant after the storm had passed. The 910th Airlift Wing based out of Youngstown-Warren Air Reserve Station, Ohio, was the DOD’s only fixed wing spray unit. These plans were requested by FEMA and the Centers for Disease Control to spray to help prevent the spread of disease.

In addition to the thousands of other armed services personnel who were conducting missions to assist in operations regarding Hurricane Katrina, there were many Navy Reserve personnel at the site as well. Immediately following Hurricane Katrina, fixed wing aircraft crewed by the reserve component Naval Aviators began conducting relief/rescue missions. Helicopters crewed by Navy Reserve members evacuated over 6,000 people, while other missions included the delivery of 2.5 million pounds of water, MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), and emergency equipment to New Orleans, Louisiana. Members of the Navy Reserve construction battalion worked to restore power and other necessary functions to the area while other worked directly with the American Red Cross and FEMA to coordinate efforts with evacuees.

Marine Reservists also played a vital role in search and rescue operations. Members of Marine Reserve 4th Battalion, 14th Marines, based in Bessemer, Ala., were placed in three locations which had been isolated by flooding in order to search for survivors and victims of the storm. Additionally, the Marine task force on the ground was commanded by the 4th Marine Division (a reserve command), who oversaw all search, rescue and relief efforts of the Marine units in the area of operation.

The United States Coast Guard Reserves command mobilized approximately 500 members of the reserves for Hurricane Katrina to conduct search and rescue operations in New Orleans. These reservists worked directly with their active duty counterparts for many search and rescue missions. More than 5,000 Coast Guard men and women from various units around the country rescued more than 33,000 people. They also responded to thousands of oil spills totaling over nine million gallons, repaired navigational aids, and restored waterways in and around some of the country’s most vital ports. Additionally, the coast guard pilots “worked around power lines, flying debris, and other obstacles not routine to maritime rescues to hoist individuals from rooftops.”

In every operation there are lessons that can be learned in order to improve future emergency operations. Documenting what aspects of an operation worked and what aspects did not can lead to better planning, better training, and a better response in upcoming emergency operations. One issue that arose between the federal military and ARNG was a question of command and control. Military commanders had not provided a clear plan for command and control of the forces, specifically which parts of the military response ARNG would take ownership of, and which part would be handled by the active component and the mobilized reservists. The search and rescue operations of ARNG and the federal military responders were not fully coordinated, and military operations were not integrated with the SAR operations of the Coast Guard and other rescuers. At least two different commands were assigning missions to helicopter pilots operating over New Orleans and no one knew what missions were being conducted.

The military did not plan for the integration of a large number of troops from different commands. Because of this, it was hard to maintain accountability of the number of forces on the ground, or the forces that were due to arrive in a short amount of time. Additionally, this lack of accountability made it hard for the mission planners to determine which missions had been received, and which ones still needed to be completed.

Because of this failure of planning and communications, many of the crucial decisions were made in the middle of the response operations. This lack of clarity led to operations that were not as efficient as they could have or should have been. There is no way to gage the impact from this issue, but it does provide the opportunity to question if the military response could have been more effective.

While conducting missions during this time frame, the reserve forces were working closely with all levels of responders from many different agencies. This was truly an interagency operation as search and rescue teams from many different organizations came to New Orleans to assist the teams already in place. This interagency response was no doubt a sharp learning curve, but the operations were completed as required and many lives were saved. The response for Hurricane Katrina search and rescue operations was a huge task due to the destruction the storm left in its path. The National Guard always has a large part to play in search and rescue operations for any incident within a state. With the size of this catastrophe, the federal government also responded with other DOD forces, including the reserve forces. While there were many reserve forces available for response, federal laws hindered that response almost to the point that no reserve units were utilized. To that end, the reserve units from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard that did respond did an outstanding job and accomplished the missions that were tasked to them.

morris.jpgMaj. William Morris currently serves in the U.S. Army 412th Theater Engineer Command in Vicksburg, Miss. He is a plans officer with duties that include planning for an U.S. Army Reserve response to disaster operations on the east and gulf coast of the United States.