Securing the homeland

September 07, 2005

A FAILURE of imagination has struck again.

President Bush and Congress are both promising investigations into what went wrong with the rescue response to Hurricane Katrina. But this much already seems clear: The lack of foresight that allowed the nation to be caught off guard by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has now hobbled preparations for dealing with a natural catastrophe that threatens every year.

In their zeal to protect the United States from another terrorist attack, federal officials downgraded and kicked aside the lead agency charged with overseeing rescue and relief efforts in major disasters. Further, the top post at the Federal Emergency Management Agency was awarded as patronage to a lawyer with no prior experience in disaster management.

Granted, many people are very angry, and FEMA is the most convenient whipping boy in such situations.

Yet the obvious bungling justifies at least two corrective measures:

Restoring the balance in a homeland security equation so obsessed with terrorism it all but ignored the regularly demonstrated fury of Mother Nature.

Replacing FEMA Director Michael Brown with a professional whose background and experience suits the position.

The mammoth Department of Homeland Security was created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks largely as a political gesture to give voters the impression that Mr. Bush and Congress were affording them greater protection. If anything, this new level of bureaucracy impedes swift action.

FEMA, which had been elevated to Cabinet-level status under President Bill Clinton, was folded into the new Homeland Security Department in 2002 with 21 other departments and agencies. Its traditional task of responding to natural disasters took on second-rate status as federal officials waved their swords at terrorists in the shadows.

Denial was also a problem, as it typically is when people are repeatedly warned about weather disasters that don't occur. Sen. Trent Lott, whose Gulf Coast home was lost in the storm, explained he had only reluctantly boarded the house up because there are so many false alarms. Yet both Mr. Brown and Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary who is a former federal prosecutor, were reportedly advised 32 hours in advance that Katrina packed enough power to breach New Orleans levees. Their later claims to have been caught off guard are indefensible.

More excuses followed. Rescue vehicles couldn't get into the city. Residents refused orders to leave. Reports of gunshots made rescue missions too dangerous. Communication was so bad that neither Mr. Brown nor Mr. Chertoff was aware for days that thousands of people had taken refuge in the city convention center.

"Hurricane Katrina was ... the most significant test of the new national emergency preparedness and response system that was created after 9/11, and it obviously did not pass that test," observed Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who will investigate the failure.

Such reviews should also examine whether the nation is preparing adequately for disasters of the sort never yet seen, such as a cyber attack.

As Katrina teaches, the worst scenario imaginable occasionally does come to pass.

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