Unpreparedness puts nation in peril

December 07, 2005|By ROBERT HOUSMAN

WASHINGTON -- Harsh criticism of the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war by the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, has drawn considerable attention. But his more important and chilling statement has been lost in the political fray: He has concluded that, in the event of a pandemic or nuclear attack, "the ineptitude of this government" would "take you back to the Declaration of Independence."

His concerns are well justified.

The nation's plans for responding to the 15 most dangerous catastrophes are spelled out in the Department of Homeland Security's 2004 National Planning Scenarios, or NPS. There is an old military adage that says no plan survives first contact with the enemy; many of these plans don't survive first contact with reality.

Hurricane Katrina provided the most tangible example of how our disaster plans and response capabilities are fundamentally inadequate. Even with 48 hours of warning, and years of planning, our response failed miserably.

More important, the problems exposed by Katrina are nothing compared with those we will witness in the event of a terrorist attack. Mr. Wilkerson is accurate in his conclusion that we are so profoundly unprepared that a major attack or catastrophe could shake us to the very foundation of our democracy.

His criticisms of the administration's handling of the war and foreign policy in an Oct. 19 speech at the New America Foundation may have presented a political threat to the White House, but his concerns about our nation's preparedness to handle terrorist attacks and natural disasters raise equal, if not greater, national security issues. While less politically charged, Mr. Wilkerson's preparedness remarks deserve serious attention.

For example, in the event of a nuclear attack, the NPS calls for the immediate evacuation of 450,000 people. We could not achieve this with 48 hours advance notice of a hurricane; to think we could do so after a nuclear attack is nonsensical. The NPS notes that a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb would destroy all infrastructure within a half-mile and severely damage infrastructure within 3 miles.

Safe escape routes would be limited to those outside the radiation plume. People who didn't swiftly escape would suffer escalating levels of radiation exposure, increasing the number of casualties. Radioactive contamination would force first responders and military units to pull back. In the areas extending out from the blast zone, where help would be most needed, people would be on their own.

Surviving medical facilities would be overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of radiation victims. We currently have no way to treat radiation sickness; victims who reached help would be offered prayers and compassion as they died slow deaths. Imagine how the Baltimore-Washington corridor would handle such a catastrophe. A nuclear attack would make the response to Katrina look like a well-oiled machine.

"We have courted disaster in Iraq, in North Korea, in Iran," Mr. Wilkerson said at the New America Foundation. "Generally, with regard to domestic crises like Katrina, Rita ... we haven't done very well on anything like that in a long time. And if something comes along that is truly serious, something like a nuclear weapon going off in a major American city, or something like a major pandemic, you are going to see the ineptitude of this government in a way that will take you back to the Declaration of Independence.

"Read in [the Declaration] what they say about the necessity of the people to throw off tyranny or to throw off ineptitude or to throw off that which is not doing what the people want it to do. And you're talking about the potential for, I think, real dangerous times if we don't get our act together."

Another serious threat we face in these dangerous times is bioterrorism. The NPS provides response plans for a number of different bioterrorism scenarios.

In the event of bioterrorism, the NPS focuses first on isolating and containing the outbreak. Then the NPS relies on the use of drugs to prevent the spread of the disease and treat victims. But we lack safe and effective drugs for many of even the most likely bioterror threats, such as smallpox.

And if terrorists used a bioengineered pathogen, we would be even less prepared. There is no multi-bug drug to stave off such an attack. There is no public-private bioterror Manhattan Project at the ready to rapidly develop a treatment. Our nation's hospitals don't have the surge capacity to treat tens of thousands of victims.

In 2003, 64 hospitals in Illinois participated in a drill testing the ability to respond to a terrorist attack using a known and treatable biological agent. According to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, by Day Two, "medical care in the city was beginning to shut down, with insufficient hospital staff, beds, ventilators and drugs."

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