Michael: On 9/11On this fourth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on this nation, it is fitting to examine the progress that has been made in preparing the homeland against another catastrophic attack by terrorists.
An obvious and fitting incident by which to measure that progress is the flooding that followed in the wake of hurricane Katrina. It involved many of the elements of a large-scale terrorist incident; massive loss of life, a need for coordination between governmental agencies and jurisdictions, the evacuation of a large urban area, massive public works projects aimed to restoring the status quo ante, and the delivery of relief and services to a massive number of citizens displaced by the event.
Imagine that Katrina was not a hurricane, but instead a massive dirty bomb. Instead of thousands of drowned, you would have thousands killed in a massive explosion on the scale of the Bali bomb, or bigger. But the bomb also contained radiological waste that made the entire New Orleans region uninhabitable. The results would have been much the same, but the cause would have been malice, not meteorologic. Would the response of FEMA and state and local governments been significantly different?
Obviously, they would have. There would likely have been no warnings of impending disaster, no prior evacuation, and even greater health effects among evacuees. Undoubtedly, the result might have been even poorer performance by emergency management agencies.
But there would still be parallels. The entire city would still need to be abandoned, at least temporarily. There would still be need for a massive public works project to remove and dispose of radiologically contaminated material (i.e., most surfaces and structures). There would still be a monumental humanitarian aid task to care for and relocate evacuees. Arguably, the performance of our government on these tasks might be even more diffcult under my theoretical conditions, which, given very poor performance on these tasks in the real scenario, might be sub-standard indeed.
The only conclusion one can draw from an imagined terrorist scenario is that the humanitarian crisis would have only been worse had Katrina been a terrorist attack. The slow reaction of FEMA to effect a complete evacuation would have condemned as much as 20% of NOLA’s population (mostly the poor) to a slow death by radiation exposure. The inability of our leadership to even begin to confront the environmental clean-up task which Katrina presents, leaves little doubt that they would fail to rise to challenges of removing and sequestering an entire city’s worth of radioactive waste. How much worse would be the loss of life and chaos if the threat people were facing were not the biological threat of simple standing water, but instead the menacing invisible threat of radiological contamination?
Tonight, itchy fingered troops, as well as Blackwater and other mercenaries, prowl New Orleans, sometimes seeing the residents and the media as an enemy insurgency to be confronted, instead of charges to be protected. I don't know of any casualties resulting from the poor morale of both armed forces and citizery, but I know it would be far worse if people were in the grip of the sort of panic this Administration seems determined to use as a tool of politics. If the purpose of the destruction of New Orleans were to have been terrorizing the public, this Administration's habits could hardly do more to accomodate that end.
Katrina has tested us, and the terrorists will be pleased to note, we have been found lacking. FEMA has once again become a plaything of political appointees and the corporate ghouls who profit from tragedy. Our federalized government seems constitutionally unable to coordinate among jurisdictions. This Administration remains obdurately resistant to any responsibility for the safety of the American people. Emergency preparedness and response, which should be Job #1 and the sine qua non of governance, instead continues to play second fiddle to giving good press conference and making a nice photo op.
For all of us who silently vowed, “Never again!” along with the rest of the nation on 9/11/01, Katrina serves as notice that this sacred vow to the victims of 9/11 been betrayed. Katrina gives us a chance to renew our commitment to be prepared next time, for there inevitably will be a next time, and to never let our guard down so badly again. But if that commitment is to mean anything, than it must mean accountability for those most proximately responsible for failure.
In this case, it is the Republican Party, which has had complete control over the federal government in the years intervening between 9/11 and Katrina, that must pay a political price for their abject failure to make the homeland safer. If they do not pay an electoral price, do not expect our government to be accountable for performance in any future crisis; expect only that they will retain better PR flacks.