TWQ: The Next Catastrophe: Ready or Not? - Winter 2009
January 1, 2009
The United States is not ready for the next catastrophe. More than seven years have passed since the country was attacked on September 11, 2001 by violent Islamist extremists who remain free, and who have made clear their willingness to use weapons of mass destruction against the United States, should they be able to acquire or build them. Three years have passed since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and laid bare myriad flaws in the nation’s preparedness and response system. Simply creating the Homeland Security Council (HSC), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and U.S. Northern Command has not been enough to prepare the country. The United States still lacks detailed, government-wide plans to respond to a catastrophe. There is still considerable confusion over who will be in charge during a disaster. Very few dedicated military forces are on rapid alert to respond to a crisis here at home. And, there are still no guidelines to determine and assess the capabilities that states, cities, and towns should have to ensure they are prepared for the worst.
A number of significant steps have been taken, and the United States is clearly more prepared than it was seven or eight years ago. There is a National Homeland Security Strategy which provides overall direction for the federal government’s homeland security policies and programs. Hundreds, if not thousands, more people than before the September 11 attacks focus each and every day on improving national preparedness. A National Response Framework (NRF), formerly known as the National Response Plan, describes how the federal government will work with state, local, and tribal governments, as well as the private sector and nongovernmental organizations during domestic incidents. Fifteen National Planning Scenarios have been drawn up to guide government planning for catastrophes. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has developed more than 200 prescripted mission assignments across 27 federal agencies to strengthen and streamline response capabilities in advance of actual events. The Department of Defense (DOD) has created a trained and ready Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and High-Yield Explosives (CBRNE) Consequence Management Response Force of about 5,000 to 6,000 soldiers that will be able to respond rapidly during a catastrophe. And the National Guard has almost completed development of 17 CBRNE Emergency Response Forces spread around the country to help bridge the gap between the immediate response to a crisis and the arrival of more extensive federal capabilities.
Despite these signs of progress, current efforts to provide homeland security, particularly at the federal level, are not unlike the governmental equivalent of a children’s soccer game. There is a tremendous amount of activity and considerable energy on the field, but the movements are often not well coordinated. In such an environment, it is not impossible to score a goal, but that outcome is usually due more to luck than to skill. Why is the United States still not ready to respond effectively to a catastrophe so many years after the September 11 attacks? Why are there so many gloomy assessments of national preparedness even after two congressional reports and one White House report detailing lessons learned from Katrina?