U.S. is called still not ready for a disaster

Communication gaps, balking broadcasters compromise response

9/11 Anniversary

September 11, 2005|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Four years after Sept. 11, 2001, the nation remains ill-prepared to deal with a catastrophic event, as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has made tragically clear, according to security analysts and former members of the 9/11 Commission.

Thomas H. Kean, who was the 9/11 Commission's chairman, said that failure bore tragic results in the bungled response after Hurricane Katrina crashed into the Gulf Coast.

This week, Kean and his former commission colleagues plan to release the first of three updates on the nation's progress in countering terrorism since they issued their best-selling report last year - in effect, the first formal outside assessment of the country's handling of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

Kean pointed, in an interview, to four problems identified in the Sept. 11 response that recurred when Hurricane Katrina hit:

Emergency responders could not talk to each other because no emergency communication system has been set up.

No one was clearly in charge of responding to the crisis.

Disaster mitigation dollars were not spent where the need was greatest because the federal government failed to set priorities.

Government officials at all levels did not do adequate emergency-response planning.

Those conclusions were supported by interviews with nearly a dozen former government officials and analysts.

"Problems implementing plans, making sure that federal agencies are working together, failures to communicate, failures to share, failures to plan, seem to be recurring themes," said former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer, previously a 9/11 commissioner.

Communications

A push to establish radio systems that enable responders on the scene to talk with each other - from the local fire department to the Department of Defense - has been stalled in Washington by lobbyists, Kean charged.

"It's sort of a disgrace that that hasn't been done," he said.

The National Association of Broadcasters has led the way in opposing legislation that would require local TV stations to cede a portion of the broadcast spectrum for emergency use, according to congressional sources.

The NAB says it will support legislation that would clear a portion of the airwaves for responders, but not until 2009.

The reason, according to NAB senior vice president Dennis Wharton, is that it will "disenfranchise 73 million TV sets" if done earlier because the move is tied to television's scheduled move from analog to digital.

"Broadcasters also provide an important role in keeping communities informed in natural disasters such as Katrina," the NAB official said, noting that the association had sent portable televisions to emergency responders after the hurricane.

Several bills to improve emergency responders' communications equipment and dedicate specific channels for their communications have stalled in Congress. Last week, Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat, tried to dislodge hers and called the failure to act "a black eye for Congress."

Only in the past year have state governments been asked by the Department of Homeland Security to buy equipment that meets national standards and to produce a communications plan before buying equipment.

As a result, some of the millions of dollars in federal homeland security money that has gone to the states to correct the so-called radio interoperability problem has gone instead for sophisticated new radio equipment that still can't connect with equipment used by other government agencies.

In New York City, scene of the deadliest attack on Sept. 11, the police and firefighters still can't readily talk to each other.

Radio manufacturers have resisted solutions to the problem as well.

For example, "Motorola doesn't want its radios to be interoperable with other companies'" because they want emergency planners to buy only their equipment, said one frustrated state homeland security official.

Who's in charge?

The disorganized government response to Katrina has shown that another crucial Sept. 11 problem has not been fixed: Who's in charge in a crisis?

On Sept. 11, local police and fire departments fought for control on the ground, and initially no one was in charge at the federal level.

After Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana, the mayor of New Orleans, the governor and a handful of federal agencies each believed they were in charge.

"We recommended very strongly in the report that the federal government should insist at the state and local level that there be an incident command system," Kean said. "Somebody has got to be in charge."

The absence of crisis control along the Gulf Coast "cost lives," Kean said.

Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, added that the federal government should not make homeland security grants to states until they have established a chain of command for emergencies.

Prioritizing threats

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