Department of Homeland Screw-Up.

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Sept. 6 2005 12:31 PM

Department of Homeland Screw-Up

What is the Bush administration doing?

The Bush administration has been staggeringly ineffectual in its response to the rapidly deteriorating situation in New Orleans. Its failures are painful evidence of how far we have to go in developing the capability to respond rapidly to a mass-casualty disaster.

The president's statement this afternoon set the tone. Rather than direct the U.S. military to immediately assist the thousands of people without food or water in the city center, Bush assured the nation that expected gasoline shortages would be temporary and that his father and former President Clinton were ready to pass the tin can to ensure private-sector support for rebuilding New Orleans. As people began dying around the Convention Center, and Mayor Ray Nagin resorted to issuing a pathetic SOS over CNN, Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff spoke empathetically of the suffering of the people in New Orleans. But somehow he seemed proud that 72 hours after the hurricane hit, only 2,800 National Guardsmen had come to the city. The number is about to reach 12,000 by tomorrow. That is awfully late for the people stranded there. Yet Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, who is commanding the military component of Washington's response, pleaded for patience from the people of New Orleans, promising that the U.S. Army was "building the capability" to help them.

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Building the capability? How is it possible that with the fourth anniversary of 9/11 almost upon us, the federal government doesn't have in hand the capability to prepare for and then manage a large urban disaster, natural or man-made? In terms of the challenge to government, there is little difference between a terrorist attack that wounds many people and renders a significant portion of a city uninhabitable, and the fallout this week from the failure of one of New Orleans' major levees. Indeed, a terrorist could have chosen a levee for his target. Or a dirty-bomb attack in New Orleans could have caused the same sort of forced evacuation we are seeing and the widespread sickness that is likely to follow.

Chertoff's Department of Homeland Security demonstrated today that it could organize an impressive press conference in Washington, lining up every participating civilian or military service from the Coast Guard to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to promise its cooperation. But on the ground in Louisiana, where it counts, DHS is turning out to be the sum of its inefficient parts. The department looks like what its biggest critics predicted: a new level of bureaucracy grafted onto a collection of largely ineffectual under-agencies.

What has DHS been doing if not readying itself and its subcomponents for a likely disaster? The collapse of a New Orleans levee has long led a list of worst-case urban crisis scenarios. The dots had already been connected. Over the last century, New Orleans has sunk 3 feet deeper below sea level. With each inch, pressure grows along the levees. Meanwhile the loss of wetlands and the shrinking of the Gulf Coast's barrier islands have reduced the natural protection from hurricane winds. The weakness of the levees was underscored in a 2002 wide-ranging exploration of New Orleans' hurricane vulnerability by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, one of many grimly vindicated Cassandras. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, which built the levees and continues to manage them, told the paper then that there was little threat of a levee's collapse. But the corps admitted that its estimates were 40 years old and that no one had bothered to update them.

The response to Katrina thus far indicates two flaws in the Bush administration's thinking about homeland security. The federal government hasn't learned how to plan for a tragedy that demands putting a city on sustained life-support, as opposed to a one-moment-in-time attack that requires recovering the dead and injured from debris and then quickly rebuilding. And DHS appears unwilling to plan for the early use of the U.S. military to cope with a civilian tragedy. Presidential administrations have perennially underestimated the difficulty of the latter task. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy's top aide, Kenneth O'Donnell, thought it would be easy to deploy troops rapidly to defend James Meredith when he was attacked by segregationists while trying to enroll as the University of Mississippi's first black student. "If the President of the United States calls up and says, 'Get your ass down there,' " O'Donnell said, "I would think they'd be on a fucking plane in about five minutes." Kennedy made that call. But then, in spite of O'Donnell's prediction, he watched in frustration as the army dithered for hours before deploying to Oxford, Miss.

The Kennedy administration thus learned that the army must be told in advance what to do. As a matter of law and preference, the military does little training for domestic missions. It balks and mutters about posse comitatus, the legal principle that prohibits the use of the army for law enforcement, and leaves the hard work for the National Guard and state and local authorities. This has made sense most of the time. But in an era when we are supposed to be better prepared for an urban disaster, the tradition of allowing local and state authorities to be overwhelmed before the federal government and military step in should have been rethought.

Located only three hours from New Orleans is Fort Polk, home of the 4th Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, a light infantry unit with about 3,000 soldiers. Also at Fort Polk is the Joint Readiness Training Center, which prepares military units to respond rapidly to crises abroad. The 4th Brigade has been training for duty in Afghanistan. Why was it also not ready to take on a local disaster scenario in hurricane season? Or at the least, once the National Hurricane Center predicted that the eye of Katrina would come close to New Orleans, couldn't DHS have deployed the military to help shore up the levees?

And in the event of a WMD attack, when there would likely be no warning at all, what is DHS's contingency plan for moving into position the army or the marines to restore order and sustain life? In the wake of Katrina and the breached levee, the answer seems to be not much of one. In the wake of 9/11, that is worse than incomprehensible. It is unforgivable.

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