Instead of turning the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina into a new opportunity for partisan finger-pointing, Congress ought to be working to make sure that government agencies can handle the next disaster, possibly a major terrorist attack. This may have been the worst natural disaster in American history, but it might not be the worst that al-Qaeda could unleash if it got its hands on nuclear or biological weapons.
The Gulf Coast and Washington, D.C., had days of warning that a Category 5 hurricane was approaching. A terrorist group would strike without notice. The consequences could be just as great, or even worse: panicky efforts to evacuate large numbers of people, a breakdown in communications and authority, a public health nightmare, mass casualties, looting and violence.
And, if Katrina shows that the country is unprepared for a massive terrorist attack, then it is even more unprepared for a pandemic like avian flu, which might kill tens of millions of people and leave more millions deathly ill, overwhelming the health system.
Certainly there's every reason for Congressional committees and a national commission to investigate all that went wrong with governmental responses to Katrina. But the emphasis ought to be on how better to prepare for "the next one."
Because there will be a next one.
Instead, the first response of politicians has been to foist blame on somebody of the other party - Republicans blaming state and local Democrats in Louisiana, Democrats everywhere blaming the Bush administration. Fortunately, a few people are emerging who have it right.
One of them is Sen. Susan Collins, R-ME, chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, who said that "governments at all levels failed" to protect their citizens.She might have specifically included Congress, whose responsibility is to oversee and fund the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In an interview, former Sen. Warren Rudman, R-NH, co-chairman of two national commissions on terrorism preparedness, said the federal government has allocated about only a fifth of the recommended $100 billion extra over five years for homeland security. Moreover, he said, much of that money has been misallocated. "A town of 300 people does not need a SWAT team or HAZMAT equipment," he said. "There has to be a risk-based priority system put in place."
Still, Collins has the right attitude about the oversight hearings she is calling on a bipartisan basis with Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-CT, ranking member on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. They will be "fair, constructive and bipartisan," she said. "It does not serve our country well to fix blame when we should be fixing problems."
Still, she added, "we would be remiss if we did not ask the hard questions needed to understand what went so wrong and what our country needs to do to improve our ability to respond to future crises - whether they are natural disasters or terrorist attacks."
Collins raised the specter of a terrorist attack, and so did Rep. Jane Harman, D-CA, ranking member on the Intelligence Committee, who said that Katrina "resembles a detonation of a weapon of mass destruction in an American city." "We witnessed a complete breakdown of America's consequence management system," Harman said. "We need to fix this problem urgently. I have no doubt that the terrorists have watched this unfold and they understand how vulnerable we are."
One proposed corrective that Rudman thinks would be wrong would be to remove FEMA from the DHS. "It belongs there," he said, "although with more authority and priority and strong leadership, top to bottom." He did not say that FEMA Director Michael Brown or Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff should be replaced, but he said, "I've always thought the person in charge should be a retired four-star general."
Rudman said the U.S. military should be elevated to the role of a first responder in huge disaster situations. "Only the military has the manpower, the equipment and the communications to handle something this big.
"I don't understand why the 82nd Airborne Division wasn't called in to pre-position supplies beforehand and move in right afterward to provide security. As it was, it was patrolling without ammunition. It could also have dropped in communications equipment."
Rudman said that, if necessary, Congress should amend the 19th century Posse Comitatus law, which forbids federal troops from performing law enforcement functions. But he said the law can be waived in emergencies.
The lesson of Katrina is that all levels of government should be reviewing and upgrading their disaster planning - urgently. Responsibility for failures needs to be assessed, but blame-mongering is a waste of precious energy.
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