- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 7, 2006

COLORADO SPRINGS (AP) — The Pentagon is buying cellular and satellite phone vans, cutting paperwork to speed delivery of aircraft, troops and supplies to stricken areas and already is sending military officers to Gulf states ahead of the hurricane season that starts June 1.

But military officials fear falling short of the public’s expectations when the next storm hits, given that the memories of New Orleans’ devastation are still vivid and frustration with the federal response still raw.

“The expectations of our citizens … have gotten so high that regardless of the responder — local, state, National Guard and Defense Department — folks will be disappointed that they can’t get everything they need right away,” said Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of U.S. Northern Command.

Sitting in his office in the shadow of Colorado’s Pikes Peak, Adm. Keating explained why the military would respond more quickly this year to a disaster: months of preparations and disaster drills; streamlined procedures; and the storage of “massive amounts” of food, water, ice and millions of military MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) in the region.

But no matter how prepared Adm. Keating is to send in military equipment and supplies, he must wait for state officials to ask for help.

During investigations into the hurricane response last year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Homeland Security Department took much of the criticism, leading to the resignation of FEMA chief Michael D. Brown.

The Pentagon was urged to expand the military’s role in disaster assistance — and that’s where the Northern Command comes in. It was created after the September 11 attacks to ensure that the military is prepared for security threats inside U.S. borders.

Command leaders say they will try to be better prepared when the calls do come from battered states.

“We weren’t aggressive going forward. We need to be more anticipatory,” said Lt. Gen. Joseph Inge, deputy commander. This year, he said, “because we’re watching, we may know before [local authorities] do that they have a potential problem.”

Adm. Keating now has the power to send some military aid without waiting for approval up the chain of command. In addition, the Pentagon has set up new procedures to cut the waiting time for action on requests for helicopters, small boats, communications and medical equipment, and other military resources.

“The time it will save: At the outside six days,” Adm. Keating told the Associated Press last week, “or it could be measured in minutes, even hours.”

He acknowledged that multiple disasters — natural ones or terrorist attacks — would test the U.S. response.

“Several simultaneous events would be a concern,” Adm. Keating said, but federal authorities have planned for such a scenario and will conduct a major exercise at Northern Command soon to test the response.

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