- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 11, 2005

After-action reports on hurricanes Katrina and Rita clearly show that both our national and regional/local response abilities are in need of revamping. But to what extent, and, with respect to the federal government, at what level of involvement? These are not idle questions but of national importance after the September 11 carnage and the ever present knowledge that terrorists and their criminal kin are out to kill as many Americans as humanly possible.

These issues bring to mind the memory of underground shelter tunnels scattered throughout Washington that as a youth I often would traipse through along with buddies who joined in on various great adventures. The generally forgotten concrete bunkers each meandered for many hundreds of yards and contained scores upon scores of barrels of dried goods, blankets and emergency lights, along with medical supplies and cots and other assorted emergency items.

These shelters were, of course, vestiges of the Cold War that ran hot throughout the 1950s, 1960s and into the 1970s. But it was never more hot than during the tense days of the emerging missile crisis of the early 1960s when Russia was abetting Cuba in establishing a nuclear beachhead with the clear intent of threatening the United States and our Western Hemisphere allies.

In hindsight, it’s somewhat amusing to recall the weekly or monthly safety drills at schools and workplaces and even neighborhoods where civil-defense block captains would conduct safety drills and check on whether individual homes were ready for a crisis. Somehow there was a sense of security from these civil-defense activities, even if we knew we’d be evaporated in the event of an attack.

Fast forward to the threats we confront today and a collective lack of civilian wisdom in understanding the needs of local evacuations, food supplies or general public safety. Beyond exposure of the great embarrassment of poverty that still lingers under our noses, so too has it been laid bare that America is unprepared to deal with a massive catastrophe before it happens — whether natural or man-made. And the question has to be asked, plain and simple: Why so?

This is not to say that federal, state and local governments aren’t preparing for such calamities. Indeed, despite the criticisms of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (and no doubt there is some evidence of foul-ups), FEMA actually did a pretty good job of marshaling the immense resources of the federal and state governments.

But it is the consequences of politics that bear much of the blame for fallout following the hurricanes insofar as oil and natural-gas prices have risen and people are angry. But whose fault is that when one considers that exploration in our country and near our coastlines has been stymied? This has led to restricted capacity, rising demand and increasing dependence on foreign sources. Between outdated regulatory schemes that fail to keep pace with technology and junk science that muddles the debate over exploration, America’s national-security energy needs that include the byproducts necessary for so much in our daily lives are at risk.

Yet, despite no gas refineries having been built in nearly 25 years and now that Katrina and Rita have severely impeded production during the historic “shoulder” period of stockpiling before winter, a growing number of lawmakers want to impose yet more taxes on refinery companies. They also seek to impose profit taxes to prevent so-called gouging, and to set up yet more roadblocks to exploration. Why?

America’s economic engines have thrived because of the free-market system, notwithstanding necessary but often burdensome regulation and taxation. One unintended consequence that emerges from the wake of Katrina and Rita is as clear as those plastic jugs for milk and water.

Chemical companies can’t make these containers fast enough, and their inability to make enough fertilizer for farmers and livestock ranchers further erodes America’s independence from imports. This is partly due to the high cost of refining natural resources in America as a result of limited production and hurdles to imports of items such as natural gas.

In short, one thing leads to another. For example, older people are often hit hardest as a result of energy price hikes in places like Florida. Ironically, experts agree there’s an abundance of natural gas just a few miles offshore and yet state officials are loath to promote exploration.

It’s not that oil and gas companies are not (or were not) operating near full capacity. They were, say industry experts, but the situation in the Gulf region and difficulties in transporting oil from there has exposed past follies.

While everyone regroups to figure out what went wrong, perhaps it’s time for President Bush to establish a Manhattan Project on energy independence and diversification that might create future safety nets we can count on. Much like those bygone underground shelters I spent many a day exploring, at least I’d then know something concrete existed.

Paul Rodriguez, the former managing editor of Insight magazine, is a media and public-policy consultant in Washington. Email: [email protected]



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