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Did we learn from 9/11?

The response to Hurricane Katrina isn't a positive sign. Many of the problems that were part of the horror four years ago were painfully evident again on the Gulf Coast.

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
Published September 11, 2005

NEW YORK - A few blocks from the gaping hole in the Manhattan skyline, where on Sept. 11, 2001, confusion aided calamity and killed her cousin, Clare Coleman watched in sorrow and anger last week as misery engulfed New Orleans.

Four years after terrorists killed 2,700 people and provided the "wakeup call" that was supposed to change everything about the way America handles disasters, Hurricane Katrina delivered the first real test to the nation's emergency response system.

It failed.

Once again, emergency communications were in disarray. Once again, no one took control. Once again, the people in the path of destruction got conflicting orders about what to do. And this time, there was plenty of warning.

Experts in homeland security say Hurricane Katrina revealed, in stark detail, the federal government's failure to fix many of the shortcomings identified after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

"It's very disappointing, and even depressing, to see that four years after 9/11 we have not done many of things we should have done to get ready for a disaster," said Lee Hamilton, the vice chairman of the bipartisan Sept. 11 Commission. "Things are moving, but they're just moving slowly."

On Friday, just a quick cab ride from ground zero, the Center for National Policy and New York University's Center for Catastrophe Preparedness & Response held a long-planned symposium to gauge progress since the Sept. 11 attacks. But sessions like "Targeting the Terrorists" quickly devolved into roaring indictments of government planning and response to Katrina.

"We knew about the weak infrastructure in New Orleans, we knew about the weak ability of the administration of New Orleans to deal with this," John Gannon, a security consultant who helped set up the Department of Homeland Security, said at the symposium.

"A terror attack in New Orleans . . . would have yielded exactly the same results. You wouldn't have had the wind, but you would have had the flooding, and you would have had the loss of life."

Katrina at least was kind enough to offer several days' warning. Had terrorists released biological agents or detonated a nuclear device in New Orleans, emergency officials also would have been dealing with mass panic and mass evacuations.

"Katrina was like a WMD attack with no radiation and at least no immediate biological contamination," said Jamie Metzl, who directed a task force of the Council on Foreign Relations. "If we can't do this, we are in big, big trouble."

* * *

In the first days after Katrina hit, as the nation watched the images of people trapped on roofs, the rampant lawlessness and delays in getting food, water and medicine to the stranded, one question kept popping up: Who's in charge?

The experts, too, were baffled.

"No one could order the troops in, they couldn't get the equipment in, they couldn't evacuate the people who needed to be evacuated," Hamilton said. The Sept. 11 Commission's report hammered away at the the need for a unified command, but "that was glaringly absent."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has taken much of the criticism for failing to have the manpower, equipment and goods ready.

But state and local officials deserve equal criticism, for sloppy evacuations before the storm and for failing to restore order after it, said Amy Zegart, a frequent congressional witness on terrorism preparedness.

However, once it was clear that local officials weren't up to the task, "the feds . . . should have stepped in," said Zegart, who studies organizational failure. "It was totally decentralized. . . . And the problem is that it's structurally like that all around the country."

If local officials become overwhelmed, there are no protocols for determining when the federal government should take control. To allocate resources, the head of FEMA needed approval of the Homeland Security secretary. Louisiana's governor initially balked at sending troops into the city. No one called thousands of troops, medical workers and others waiting to help as soon as Katrina passed.

FEMA, for instance, requested 2,000 firefighters from around the country, but on Wednesday hundreds of them were still in Atlanta, the Associated Press reported, "playing cards, taking classes on FEMA's history, and lounging at a local hotel."

The elite search and rescue helicopter teams of the 920th Rescue Wing at Florida's Patrick Air Force Base told the Pentagon they were ready to deploy when Katrina hit, but they weren't called until 36 hours after the storm passed.

"This is what they live to do, so we had nothing but volunteers," said Lt. Col. Bob Thompson, a spokesman for the 920th Rescue Wing. "We even had guys in Afghanistan ready to rotate home, and they were saying don't even bring us home, fly us straight to Jackson (Miss.), and we'll start doing rescue down there."

There have been improvements since 9/11. President Bush appointed a national director of intelligence, John Negroponte, to oversee the nation's 15 intelligence agencies, and they share information much better than before 9/11. Airline and port security have been enhanced.

But in preparing for disasters, critics say Congress and the Bush administration have succumbed to politics: It's easier to deal with the now than the if.

"Putting a lot of money and time in preparedness efforts where you may never see what you hope will never happen is not a politically attractive thing to do," Zegart said. "The payoff is too far in advance."

Two years ago, a Council on Foreign Relations task force surveyed state and local emergency responders and determined they needed $100-billion more to meet minimal standards for response and preparedness. That money has not been allocated.

Despite calls to streamline oversight of intelligence agencies and disaster preparedness, turf battles continue to interfere. The U.S. Coast Guard, for example, a critical component of the Department of Homeland Security, answers not to the Senate's Homeland Security Committee, but to the Transportation Committee.

Congress has established no system for assessing vulnerability and threat when allocating disaster preparedness grants; instead, as the Sept. 11 Commission warned, the money is used like the federal highway bill to send pork to hometown districts.

Despite the recommendations of several independent groups, there remain no federal standards for local disaster preparedness plans.

One result is that when the city of New Orleans finally issued a mandatory evacuation order, it had no plan or resources for getting poor, elderly and sick residents out. At a minimum, the local fire departments should have been equipped with portable boats, motors and PA systems, said Coleman, the program director for NYU's Center for Catastrophe Preparedness & Response, whose cousin, Billy Martin, died at the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Despite the radio problems on 9/11 that contributed to the deaths of hundreds of New York rescue workers, emergency workers in most major metropolitan centers still lack "interoperability," the ability to communicate with one another, or backup systems in case a storm or attack disables their networks.

One simple fix, as the Sept. 11 Commission and other panels discovered, would be to set aside a portion of the radio spectrum for police, fire and other emergency workers. But bills to do that have been stalled in Congress thanks to opposition from the broadcast industry.

Said Coleman: "The question is, how many times do we need to get this wrong?"

* * *

Critics say the Republican-led Congress has failed to adequately critique the Bush administration's efforts to improve homeland security, or question where and how the executive branch has made changes.

Even now, the House Homeland Security Committee has no permanent chairman; a leading contender is Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who has been criticized for securing $200-million in the recent highway bill for a bridge to an island in his district with just 50 residents.

Already, the early attempts to find and plug the holes revealed by Katrina have become mired in the rank mud of politics. Last week, Democrats criticized "out of touch" Republicans for wanting to pass more tax cuts this fall, even as the estimated bill for Katrina climbs toward $150-billion.

Republicans, who have controlled Congress and the White House since 9/11, said it was far more important to focus on helping storm victims than assigning blame. Their leaders have quashed plans by the House and Senate Government Affairs Committee to hold investigative hearings this week.

Instead, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced they would convene a bipartisan commission of "senior" lawmakers to hold hearings later. Their report won't be due until mid February.

Which makes no sense to Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

"This is a place where oversight matters," but Congress has been unwilling "to bludgeon people in the executive branch to change their behavior," said Ornstein, who participated in NYU's symposium.

"This Congress sees itself far more as field lieutenants in the service of the president . . . and the president suffers in the long run. It's just colossally, mind-bendingly stupid."

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