The Defense Department is grooming a new type of commander to coordinate the military response to domestic disasters, hoping to save lives by avoiding some of the chaos that plagued the Hurricane Katrina rescue effort. The officers, called dual-status commanders, would be able to lead both active-duty and National Guard troops — a power that requires special training and authority because of legal restrictions on the use of the armed forces on U.S. soil. No one commander had that authority in the aftermath of Katrina, and military and civilian experts say the lack of coordination contributed to the nightmarish delays, duplications and gaps in the huge rescue effort.
An unprecedented 70,000 military personnel poured into the region to help, but active-duty and Guard troops often didn’t know what the other was doing. The confusion was likened to the Keystone Kops of slapstick movies, with too many troops bumping heads at some assignments while other tasks went undone.
The dual-status concept is simple but the execution is not. The active-duty military is limited in what it can do at home. The National Guard in each state is in charge of helping civilian authorities during emergencies. Active-duty and National Guard troops also have distinctly different chains of command. The president is the commander-in-chief of active-duty troops, while the Guard reports through a state chain of command leading to the governor. A dual-status commander would straddle that divide. With the approval of both state and federal officials, he or she would get temporary authority to command both types of troops and report up both chains of command.