September 9, 2005

September 9, 2005 | Commentary on

Preventing future catastrophes

It is hard to believe that the scenes from New Orleans, and the other cities of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi devastated by hurricane Katrina, are actually right here in the United States. It is as though centuries of civilization have been washed from the face of the Gulf Coast - buildings, infrastructure, power generation, gone in a matter of hours. Even the terrorist attacks on September 11, the fourth anniversary of which is coming up this weekend, did not come close to inflicting the physical devastation of this one mighty storm.

In this context, it is not surprising that so many should demand to know how could it happen.And,then,whois responsible. President Bush made the right decision, therefore, when he announced yesterday the creation of an investigatory committee to look into "what went right and what went wrong," as the president put it. As Congress is undoubtedly poised to leap to the conclusion that what is needed now are massive infusions of federal funds - we are already talking about some $40 billion in federal aid - there is an urgent need for facts.

As a nation, we both need answers and reassurance that state, local and federal agencies charged with disaster relief have learned the important lessons from this catastrophic event that will help us deal with the next one, be that a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. This should be the real purpose of this exercise, not the assignment of blame - a political instinct that bubbles to the surface only too readily.

The director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff started taking inordinate criticism almost immediately. And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi took the opportunity of the president's announcement to comment that if Mr. Bush were looking for responsible parties for the disaster, he need only look in the mirror - as if he were Neptune.

Why, for instance, given the extraordinary topography of New Orleans, did no one at the state and local planning level take the appalling consequences of a break in the levee seriously? Louisiana did have an emergency evacuation plan. Why wasn't it activated? A direct hit on New Orleans almost seems to have been inevitable at some point. The entire city seems an improbability when you look at it today, with the benefit of hindsight, of course.

Wedged in a bowl between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, its topography is as improbable as its lifestyle was lush. Like that other famously sinking city, Venice, New Orleans was created in defiance of the forces of nature. Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost 1 million acres in wetlands, nature's way of soaking up flooding. The city and its levy system were already sinking. Will rebuilding New Orleans in its exact former shape really be the most intelligent way to go?

From the lessons learned point of view, we must determine why the coordination between state and federal officials was so appallingly poor. Human lives were lost as National Guard units and federal responders waited for their marching orders, either in the form of requests from the affected governors or from Washington. One of the failings identified by the September 11 commission was the lack of communication between local responders, air traffic control, the Pentagon and the White House. Four years on, failure of communication remains a huge problem when speed is of the essence to save lives.

Is FEMA to be blamed for the chaotic initial response? And was it a mistake to pull the agency into the Homeland Security Department, where its mission has been directed toward dealing with acts of terrorism? This question will get a lot of attention in the coming days and weeks. FEMA, however, has been the subject of criticism since before it was folded into DHS, and the shortcomings we have seen in communication and logistics may not be the result of the reorganization. Additionally, we need to ask how the National Guard can be restructured to deal with domestic catastrophes. National Guard units have been spread thin in the course of the deployment to Iraq, obviously limiting their availability at home.

While we all await the answers, we also wonder what we can each do to help fellow Americans in such dire need. At least, we don't have to wait for studies and hearings to take out the checkbook or roll up the sleeves to volunteer.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times