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BenchmarksDr. Donald Kettl presented his research on policy proposals to improve FEMA and the nation’s emergency response system, to dozens of senior government officials with homeland security responsibilities at a special session of the Treasury Department’s Executive Institute at the U.S. Mint in Washington, D.C. on September 22. The full report is available online at www.sas.upenn.edu/fels/research_service.htm.

The Worst Is Yet to Come: Lessons from September 11 and Hurricane Katrina

Any cardiologist whose patient failed two stress tests in a row would prescribe aggressive treatment. The patient would need to learn how to deal with a heart that gave out, for the alternatives surely would not be good.

In fact, American government has now failed two stress tests—first September 11, then Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of September 11, everyone pledged that the government would learn how to prevent such consequences. But Katrina revealed scant improvement and enduring, deep-seated pathologies. Left untreated, these pathologies will continue to plague us and threaten even greater loss of life, more injuries, and spiraling property damage.

As bad as Katrina was, it could have been far worse. Instead of a glancing blow from a Category 4 hurricane, New Orleans could have suffered a direct hit from a Category 5 storm. Hurricanes are not the only mega-threat we face. Seismologists continue to warily eye the west coast for “the big one,” and public health officials are worrying about the risk that avian flu could cause a world pandemic. Terrorism could trump all those threats. As bad as Katrina was, the worst is yet to come—unless we find a way to learn, quickly, how best to deal with these events.

Such wide-ranging problems share a core: they are what analysts call “asymmetric threats,” broad and unpredictable events aimed, deliberately or not, at points of vulnerability in the system. On September 11, terrorists cleverly exploited weaknesses in the airline security system. Four years later, Hurricane Katrina inflicted enormous damage because its flood waters burst through weaknesses in New Orleans’s levee system.

We deal relatively well with threats that play to our strengths. Both Gulf Wars lasted mere weeks because, in both cases, the Iraqi regular army was outfought and outgunned by a vastly superior force. But the American military has had a far more difficult time dealing with “improvised explosive devices,” often triggered by cell phones or garage door openers, aimed at vulnerabilities in our equipment and strategy. We have successfully developed vaccines against deadly scourges like smallpox, but we find ourselves seriously vulnerable to diseases like bird flu that exploit vulnerabilities in our immune systems.

When faced with such puzzles, we naturally reach back to the past for how to deal with an uncertain future. That works well when the old instincts provide useful clues for new threats. The problem with asymmetric threats, however, is that by definition the old solutions do not fit. We nevertheless continue to drive down the old, familiar road. Even if it does not take us where we need to go, there is comfort in the fact that the path, at least, feels familiar.

A foreign diplomat told me that he found it curious, as the United States sought to devise a post-September 11 strategy, that top officials looked backward to the lessons of creating the Department of Defense in the 1940s as the model for the 21st century’s most important new problem. It reinforced the “failure of imagination” that the 9/11 Commission found was at the core of our vulnerability to that attack.

We also fail to learn because of pathologies rooted deeply in the American system of government. In debating the Department of Homeland Security, Republicans and Democrats fought over the symbol of creating the new department. In fact, President Bush fought hard against the plan and switched, at the last minute, just as it became clear that congressional Democrats were going to force it on him. He now pays for the switch: angry Gulf Coast residents are calling on him to answer for the department’s poor performance. In creating the department, Washington politicians got a symbol. The department they created was a mess to manage.

Even worse, the creation of the department reflected four dangerous American political instincts. One is to try to solve every public problem by putting a box around it. Congress and the president tried to shore up homeland security by merging 22 agencies into a new department. Hurricane Katrina paid no attention to their handiwork and revealed deep flaws in the operations of the department and one of its key units, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “When in doubt, reorganize!” is the watchword. But, as Katrina showed, that solution does not guarantee an effective response and, in fact, it can sometimes make it worse.

The second is to force problems into hierarchies. We look for the chain of command and push decisions up the chain. However, the wonderfully complex system of American government is exquisitely designed to ensure that no one is ultimately responsible for anything. The shared responsibility buried in the Constitution’s separation of powers and in the federal-state-local division of work guarantees that our instinctive search for a command authority over complex problems will be disappointed.

Third, we substitute an obsession for rules for a focus on performance. In the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina rules and paperwork repeatedly stymied the response. President Bush said, “We will not allow bureaucracy to get in the way of saving lives.” But an infuriated Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) told Nightline, “What I’ve seen the last several days is bureaucrats that were worried about procedure rather than saving lives.”

Hundreds of firefighters from around the country were stuck in Atlanta, receiving days of training on community relations and sexual harassment, before they reached the front lines. Truck drivers carrying thousands of water bottles were prevented from driving to New Orleans because they had not yet been assigned a “tasker number.” Wayne County, Michigan, Sheriff Warren C. Evans refused to stop his convoy of 6 trailer trucks, full of food and water, and 33 deputies, to await the required forms. “I could look at CNN and see people dying, and I couldn’t in good conscience wait for a coordinated response,” he said.

Finally, as one frustrated state homeland security official put it, we have a “maniacally single-minded devotion to home rule.” Governmental units often follow river banks or arbitrary lines on map. In many parts of the country, we’ve drawn our boundaries to meet important 17th century goals, such as ensuring that citizens live within a day’s horseback ride of the county seat. Many of our most important problems fail to fit the boundaries drawn centuries ago. We surely need to promote democratic self-government, but we cannot allow the local officials’ insistence on autonomy to jeopardize citizens’ lives. The situation got so bad in New Orleans that police in neighboring Gretna City fired over the heads of evacuees to prevent them from crossing a bridge into their town. Gunfire rarely promotes collaboration in a crisis.

We know how to solve many of these problems, even the asymmetric threats that raise special concerns. Our public officials need to work together like members of a symphony, all of them knowing the special role they need to play to toward a harmonious result. We need top officials who understand the need to lead, and that leading is more like a conductor whose job it is to recognize the score they need to perform and how to bring the right instruments in. The first responders at the Pentagon on the morning of September 11 showed that this strategy not only is possible but that it can work well, even in crisis. Too often, however, we have dueling conductors fighting over the baton.

We do not need to suffer Katrina-like failures again. We have had two stress tests and have been taught the lessons we need to learn. More asymmetric threats loom before us. If we fail to learn, the worst surely is yet to come.

Donald F. Kettl, Director, Fels Institute of Government,
Stanley I. Sheerr Endowed Term Professor in the Social Sciences



  Almanac, Vol. 52, No. 6, October 4, 2005


October 4, 2005
Volume 52 Number 6


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