- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 13, 2005

In the face of real dangers and threats to the nation, September 11 should have shocked the United States out of its complacency and a false sense of security.

Since then, hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars have been spent to protect the nation, ostensibly against terror. Wars were fought in Afghanistan and Iraq and against global terror. The Department of Homeland Security was created, intelligence reformed and Americans assured that better means were in place to deal with disasters, whether imposed by terrorists or nature.

Then came Katrina. The responses of government at all levels were not merely “unacceptable” in President Bush’s words. They were derelict. The reflexive question is how did this happen. But the more important one is whether this failure is symptomatic of a political system no longer capable of its most sacred obligation to protect its citizens. And if it is, will anyone pay attention?

A few observations are important. Even if we were perfectly organized, the catastrophic consequences and full destructive might of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane can never be contained. Legions of individual acts of compassion, charity and courage occurred reflecting our better angels. And, in crisis, many things simply go wrong. But these are not excuses for a government that failed dismally in coping with Katrina.

Four years have elapsed since the Twin Towers were struck. Four years after Pearl Harbor, the United States was happily preparing to celebrate Christmas 1945. The war in Europe had been over for seven months; the war in the Pacific for three. From a standing start, America had mobilized a military of 12 million and defeated enemies who had conquered a substantial portion of the globe.

So, how does America’s post-September 11 performance compare with that war? After more than three years, the Department of Homeland Security has still not completed a national response and preparation plan and overarching architecture to deal with terrorist attack and one assumes with natural disasters such as Katrina. Coordination and communications between and among first responders and local, state and federal officials and offices are missing in action. And no electronic or fiber backbone has been put in place to link officials at all levels with the capacity to talk and exchange information on a rapid and reliable basis.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff acknowledged that, as late as Thursday of that horrible week, Louisiana officials had not informed him of the use of the Superdome as a refugee center. Perhaps that department should be provided a few more television sets, as virtually no one in America watching this crisis unfold was unaware of the hopeless conditions at the Superdome.

Frustration on the part of the Army and National Guard units over the absence of local leadership was palpable and often turned into fury as frequently reported by the media. Tensions between local, state and federal officials were understandable but should have been anticipated long in advance. And where were local and state governments in taking preventative steps years earlier, from asserting more forcefully the need to strengthen the levees and flood protection capabilities guarding New Orleans to understanding that more than 100,000 of its residents lacked cars by which to flee any impending disaster?

Did the Louisiana congressional delegation do their job in making this case to their colleagues? And if they did why did Congress not act to fund protective measures or indeed to ensure oversight of the nation’s emergency response capability?

Katrina may not be a final warning. But it is close. The president has no option but to take charge and mandate remedial actions now. He should do the following:

• First, he should order the Department of Homeland Security to broaden its focus on battling terrorism to coping with disruption and disaster irrespective of cause.

• Second, the department should be given 60 days to complete its national plan and architecture for dealing with disruption and disaster, and 60 more days to coordinate at the state level and with the largest 25 or so cities in the country.

• Third, the White House adviser for homeland security must be directed to develop a plan within 60 days to eliminate the lack of coordination and communication between all levels of government and given a year to implement it with exercises and tests to ensure compliance.

• Fourth, a reliable electronic and fiber backbone to link first responders with state and federal agencies must be created and installed before the next anniversary of September 11.

If we fail to implement these measures, when the next catastrophe strikes — and one will — it will be too late. When that happens, perhaps we will finally realize that our political system has truly broken down.

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