May 24, 2010 | Commentary on Terrorism, Homeland Security

Homeland Security that is Not So Slick

At 8:46 a.m. on September 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into North Tower. Seventeen minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower.

The response was massive and nearly instantaneous. Within minutes, would-be rescuers flooded the site of the tragedy. Most did not wear uniforms.

In addition to police, fire and EMT services, construction workers flocked to the scene. And there was plenty of work for all. During the initial round-the-clock search and cleanup period, Ground Zero kept about 10,000 skilled support personnel (heavy equipment operators, truck drivers, iron workers, carpenters and laborers) busy each day.

Like many heroic efforts, it was foolhardy as well. Virtually nothing had been done to prepare these responders to respond safely. Many lacked basic personal protective equipment such as work boots, masks and gloves. The first ones in had no safety briefings, much less formal training.

"I saw first-hand the inadequacies of the training for skilled support," wrote Bruce Lippy, an investigator on the scene. "Subsequent studies by Mount Sinai Medical Center have indicated that over half of the 2,500 workers they have screened as of November 25, 2002 are still suffering respiratory symptoms. This indicates a real need for better training of these worker populations: We can give them more than the three-hour training we provided three months after the attack."

Ultimately, the lack of preparation turned thousands of 9/11 responders into 9/11 victims. In March, New York City agreed to pay over $657 million to more than 10,000 responders for injuries and illnesses suffered as a result of their work at Ground Zero.

But have officials learned the painful lesson of this experience? Probably not. Just look at what's happening along the Gulf Coast.

After the worst oil spill in U.S. history, Gulf residents rushed to volunteer their help with the cleanup. Many area fishermen, armed with little more than booms and their boats, set sail to help contain the spill. But few left port with anything approaching adequate training and protective equipment.

There is some indication that, over the past few weeks, responders were getting better training and equipment. Let's hope it's not too little, too late. After the cleanup of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, responders reported suffering maladies ranging from chronic respiratory illnesses to cancer.

Washington bears part of the blame. After 9/11, Lippy and Kerry Murray wrote a report for the National Institutes of Health arguing that the United States needed a disaster response system able to do more than merely mobilize millions of private-sector construction workers in response to a catastrophe. It needed to be able to ensure them a reasonable level of safety as well.

Almost a decade later, virtually nothing has been done.

Instead, Congress and the Department of Homeland Security have gone haring down almost every homeland security-related rabbit trail out there, giving short shrift to their most important job: preventing and preparing an effective response to potentially catastrophic disasters.

Congress still toys with homeland security, dispersing oversight of the department across an unbelievable 108 committees, subcommittees and commissions.

The department fritters away resources responding to an ever-increasing number of state "emergency calls." By thus "nationalizing" run-of-the-mill disaster response, DHS each year devotes less time and fewer resources preparing for the really big disasters.

That's why, when something really big like the Gulf oil spill comes along, the department is caught flat-footed. And so we have Coast Guard Rear Adm. Peter Neffenger from the Department of Homeland Security admitting to Congress, "Clearly this is beyond what we anticipated."

Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in the Examiner