|April 11, 2006|
Friday Morning at the Doom Room
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
This just in: we're nowhere near being ready for the next big disaster, natural or terrorist-inflicted. Our local, state and especially federal agencies just are not fully prepared for catastrophes sent down upon us, as one emergency management expert says, "by angry gods or angry men."
That may not seem like news, but wait, it gets worse. According to some distinguished folks in the know, we are even LESS prepared than we were before Hurricane Katrina or 9/11.
That was the gloomy message last Friday morning during a conference I attended at the New School for Social Research, just a few blocks from my Greenwich Village apartment and a mile or so north of Ground Zero.
Titled "Cities at Risk -- Planning for Catastrophe -- The Benefits of Hindsight," it featured a compelling combination of panelists, including two former directors of the Federal Emergency Management Agency: James Lee Witt, the much praised FEMA head during the Clinton years; and Michael Brown, the much maligned FEMA chief forced to resign during the Katrina debacle. (An audience member briefly heckled him with several taunts of "Heckuva job, Brownie," but soon shut up. Either he ran out of material, was forcibly removed from the hall or Tasered into submission.)
The conference came on the heels of the announcement that the acting director of FEMA, R. David Paulison, former fire chief of Miami-Dade, Florida, has been given the job full-time, pending Senate confirmation. This, after the position had been offered to, and turned down by, the most experienced disaster managers in the country. All of them, the New York Times reported, were, "unconvinced that the administration is serious about fixing [FEMA] or that there is enough time to get it done before President Bush's second term ends."
Both Brown and Witt said they wouldn't have taken it either. "If I had been Mr. Paulison, I'd have said you can take it and put it somewhere," Witt declared. Unless the government removes FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security, he said, and "puts it back as an independent, cabinet-level agency, Paulison is headed for failure."
What's the problem? A lot of it, the panelists said, in addition to the loss of FEMA's independence, is an insufficient emphasis on emergency planning and management. "Emergency management at the local, state, and national level does the planning, training, and exercising for all of public safety," Witt explained.
"If you don't plan together, train together, and exercise together, how in the world are you going to respond?" he asked. "If you don't build those relationships and partnerships from the national to the local level, if you don't know who you're responding with -- well, you don't want to wind up swapping business cards at the disaster scene and that's what we're doing."
Nor is there proper funding. Another panelist, former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, a member of the 9/11 Commission and now president of the New School, said, "The preparation is not as good as it needs to be, the communication is not as good as it needs to be and I think we've put such an emphasis on cutting taxes in Washington, DC, we no longer have the resources necessary to do this kind of job or many other jobs as well."
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley concurred. "The federal government is probably less prepared now than we were before," he said. "You can't cut dollars every single year for local law enforcement and fire block grants, you cannot cut preparedness dollars and those sorts of emergency response dollars every year and expect that that is going to have the effect of improving your security and your ability to respond to emergencies."
Clark Kent Ervin (yes, his real name), the former inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security and author of a new book, "Open Target: Where America Is Vulnerable to Attack," said he feared the loss of a sense of urgency: "We Americans are very much people of the moment. We haven't been attacked in nearly five years and a lot of people infer that, because we have a department called homeland security, the homeland is secure. We need significantly more money, but we also need effective leadership and we need a culture at the department that welcomes outside criticism and scrutiny because unaccountable government is necessarily ineffective government."
There was more -- a lot more -- about the paucity of oversight by both Congress and the media, the role of the private sector, the Department of Homeland Security's inadequate access to the nation's intelligence apparatus, and the gap between White House rhetoric about the war on terror and the reality of our lack of preparedness.
Ervin said he mistakenly had thought Michael Chertoff would be "a huge improvement" over Tom Ridge as Secretary of Homeland Security because he brought with him "a strategic construct... a focus on foreseeable threats, then that subset of foreseeable threats that if they materialized would have the greatest consequence in terms of death, injury and economic damage.
"The problem is that Katrina presented that template brilliantly; it was not just foreseeable, it was foreseen -- obviously catastrophic -- and yet we were manifestly unprepared for it. So the fact that we're not prepared for a disaster that we can predict with near mathematical precision necessarily means we aren't prepared for a terrorist attack for which there will be no warning."
As a guy I know in the demolition business says, when things go wrong, "That's a big, 'Oh my.'" The release of the New York City 911 operator tapes from September 11 reminds us that our various emergency communications systems remain incompatible and inefficient. A Senate panel is told the Washington, DC, area still has no coherent emergency plan. A recent report warns that any military action against Iran may unleash a new wave of terrorist attacks in the United States. And hurricane season is only six weeks away.
Fasten your seatbelts.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes a weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.
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