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Ignoring One Threat for Another

Author: Stephen E. Flynn
October 31, 2006
The Washington Post

Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security

By Christopher Cooper and Robert Block

Times. 333 pp. $26

In 2004, the Army Corps of Engineers requested $22.5 million to address New Orleans’s most pressing hurricane protection needs. The Bush administration cut that request to $3.9 million; Congress ended up appropriating $5.5 million. The next year, the White House asked for only $3 million. “It appears that the money has been moved in the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war inIraq,” Walter Maestri, director of emergency management for Jefferson Parish, remarked at the time. “I suppose that’s the price we pay.”

The real cost of such decisions turned out to be the near-death of one of America’s great cities. New Orleans’s levees and floodwalls started to collapse even before Hurricane Katrina made landfall. Faced with sustained winds barely at hurricane force and a tidal surge that peaked at less than 12 feet, the storm control system that was supposed to withstand a direct hit by a Category 3 hurricane failed catastrophically.

Even as the tragic consequences of that neglect were unfolding, Washington’s myopic focus on terrorism and homeland security continued, report Christopher Cooper and Robert Block in “Disaster,” their searing indictment of a post-9/11 federal government more intent on dealing with hypothetical dangers than real ones. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), for example, delayed an airlift for the evacuees trapped in the Superdome and Convention Center for nearly two days by insisting that all passengers and luggage be screened. Further, TSA wanted the Federal Emergency Management Agency to arrange special flights to bring in generators to operate X-ray equipment and undercover air marshals to fly on the outbound planes. Desperate hordes of Katrina’s victims were left to suffer while bureaucrats at the Department of Homeland Security were incapacitated by the fantasy that a terrorist sleeper cell might be lurking in the midst of New Orleans’s “shelter of last resort,” waiting to strike on the emergency flight out of town.

“Disaster” is written by two veteran reporters who tenaciously piece together the inside story of how the Bush administration unraveled when confronted with its first major post-9/11 domestic emergency. Cooper was the White House correspondent for the Wall Street Journal before being assigned the national political beat; Robert Block covers homeland security for the same paper. (He has periodically interviewed me for his stories on the department’s rocky start.) They point out, accurately, that acts of God are far more likely to destroy lives and property than are plots by al-Qaeda and its imitator organizations. But who were millions of Americans relying on for help when nature showed its fury in a frighteningly predictable way in the late summer of 2005? FEMA—a tiny marginalized agency of 2,600 full-time employees spread across 10 regions under the less-than-able leadership of Michael Brown, the former commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association.

Yet this tightly crafted, very readable book does not leave the reader with a sense of doom. While the book inexplicably fails to look at how the Coast Guard was able to rescue and evacuate more than 33,000 people while FEMA foundered, Cooper and Block point out that we actually do know how to manage emergencies: James Lee Witt’s tenure at FEMA during the Clinton administration focused on disaster prevention and the early deployment of federal resources before storms struck.Florida’s now well-oiled hurricane response system, which grew out of the wreckage wrought by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, has as its cornerstone nimbleness in responding to the needs of storm victims. But while Gov. Jeb Bush continued to invest in hurricane preparedness, his brother’s administration decided that an adequately funded and skillfully managed FEMA was a luxury that a nation at war could no longer afford.

There has been no independent blue-ribbon commission charged with finding out what went so badly wrong within the federal bureaucracy before, and after, Hurricane Katrina roared ashore.

“Disaster” is likely the best in-depth contemporary analysis we are going to get—and it does that job quite admirably. Given that future catastrophes are inevitable, this book is a call to arms to demand a far more competent federal emergency response thanWashington has been willing to provide.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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