Thursday, September 8, 2005

previous entry | main | next entry | TrackBack (3)

"Katrina is not the Worst Case Scenario"

Amy Zegart --'s resident expert on homeland securit and intelligence reformy -- e-mailed me these thoughts on Katrina's lessons for defending against terrorist attacks:

The devastation from Hurricane Katrina is not the worst case scenario. The worst case scenario is a man made disaster with no warning: a catastrophic terrorist attack with a nuclear or biological agent. Make no mistake. The question is not whether such an attack will occur, but when.

What can we do? Start by facing reality. It is not too soon to begin assessing what went wrong with emergency response in New Orleans and what makes terrorism different from natural disasters. Some initial thoughts:

1. The keystone cops response in New Orleans stems, in part, from a flawed model of how to train for disaster.

Training drills almost never prepare officials for the worst. New Orleans conducted disaster exercises in 2000 and 2004 for hurricanes, but these drills did not include the possibility of a levee failure. In Los Angeles, a major port security exercise, Determined Promise 2004, tested a new mobile radio patch unit that enables different emergency response agencies to talk to each other. Surprise surprise: the system worked well. Of course it did. When everyone knows disaster will begin at noon on Monday, they miraculously remember to bring the right radios and brush up on instructions about how to use them properly. Even worse, not only do many exercises avoid facing truly disastrous scenarios, they define success by how smoothly everything goes. This gives a false sense of comfort, or to use a technical term, it's STUPID. Instead, we need to drill into officials that the right measure of success is how much they learn. If things do not go wrong in a drill, then the exercise was not useful.

2. At every level of government, elected officials work from a fictional premise: that they can, and should, protect everyone from every possible disastrous event. But the truth is hurricanes will hit. Terrorists will strike. Prevention will be far lower than 100%. If you start by acknowledging, rather than avoiding, this reality, you get a different approach: concentrate funding, planning, and efforts on potential events that would bring catastrophic consequences, rather than spreading resources too thin. Hurricane hits Florida, bad. Hurricane hits New Orleans rendering the entire city uninhabitable, catastrophe. Suicide bombs at shopping malls, bad. Nuclear bomb blasting a major U.S. city into oblivion, unacceptable. The goal should be to ensure that government is best prepared to prevent and respond to the worst possible outcomes rather than splitting time and money between an endless array of possibilities.

Politicians hate thinking like this because it's scary and it's politically unattractive: they actually have to make choices about what ranks high on the priority list and what does not. And that is guaranteed to piss off more people than it pleases. In the three years after 9/11 Congress distributed roughly $13 billion in homeland security funding to the states using a formula that redefines crazy: 40% of the funds went to every state, regardless of population or terrorist targets. Rural areas with no major targets got a disproportionate share of the funds, while the most likely terrorist targets, like Los Angeles, got the shaft. Note to self: move back to Kentucky soon.

Zegart also has a sobering reminder -- it is easier to cope with natural disasters than terrorist attacks:

Natural disasters are obvious when they occur. Many types of terrorist attacks (biological attacks, radiological contamination) are not. If you think the slow pace of response to Katrina is bad, imagine the outbreak of an infectious disease, where fast diagnosis is all that stands between a few deaths and national tragedy. Natural disasters often come with warning. Terrorist attacks do not. This difference is huge. It is easy to forget, amidst the desperate struggle for survival by New Orleans residents, that many thousands more did successfully evacuate before the hurricane hit. In a massive terrorist attack, the likely scenario would be mass panic.

posted by Dan on 09.08.05 at 12:37 PM


actually, from all of that's been written, we have more advance notice about terrorist action than we do about "natural" hits.

"Natural" hits come from a single source.
(you've heard of the Bible belt, haven't you)

Terrorists are like the stick thrown at a dog.
The dog may not know about who threw the stick or why

As for prevention: when WTC was hit below ground, it was only a matter of time when a different approach would be used.

So do we keep looking for which stick will be used or do we go after the thrower(s)

posted by: hindSight on 09.08.05 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

i would only add that those groups that bear primary responsibility for disaster prevention and response -- the military, FEMA, parts of DHS, the intelligence apparatus -- must be excluded from the washington culture of cronyism and sinecure.

those groups must also be free from the external influences of radical ideology on either party's part (norquist's "drown the government in the bathtub," anyone?)

i assume that it's clear to any rational observer that these problems are far worse under this republican administration than his predecessor.

competence in the face of patronage and ideology is the great elephant of this discussion.

posted by: ethan on 09.08.05 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

the right measure of success is how much they learn. If things do not go wrong in a drill, then the exercise was not useful.

I agree with this, but the problem is that the general public doesn't understand it. If it becomes known that a drill resulted in X amount of problems, there will be a big hue and cry about it rather than a general understanding that it's an expected part of the process.

It's like the SDI tests -- any time a test fails, opponents use the results as a cudgel to bash the program. So the people who run the program are under some pressure to design tests that maximize the chances for success rather than the amount of useful new information to be gained.

posted by: kenb on 09.08.05 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

Ms. Zegart's point about disaster drills is well taken, but let's not get too hung up on defining "worst case." Katrina, technically, could have been far worse than it was, for reasons we could not have done anything about. Yet even the storm as it happened caused some problems, protracted flooding, for example that might not arise after a terrorist attack.

I'm not sure Katrina provides more than a modest amount of information about how the United States would respond to a major terrorist attack in another part of the country. My criticism of the federal response is that it reflected inadequate preparation for a predictable worst-case situation in that part of the country -- i.e. the Gulf Coast.

On a distantly related subject....I'd be glad for any examples other readers could provide of bad policies being replaced by better ones as a result of the bad policies being called "insane," "crazy," "demented" or even "stupid." Unless one's objective is emotional release rather than persuasion I cannot think invective of this kind is likely to get one anywhere, but I am open to contrary evidence.

posted by: Zathras on 09.08.05 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

"Natural disasters are obvious when they occur."

Was the great influenza pandemic of the early 20th century obvious when it started? No. Another major influenza pandemic would start as an increase in flu cases against a background of a substantial number of existing cases. It wouldn't be obvious until it was well underway.

"Natural disasters often come with warning."

This depends on your definition of often. Hurricanes/tropical storms. Yes. Droughts, these may be predictable. Earthquakes? A fairly common natural disaster with minimal and often no warning. Think about a major earthquake in LA, the Bay area or Seattle. How about the related phenomenon, the tsunami. If there had been an adequate warning sytem in the Indian ocean, the lead time would have been minutes to hours. Probably enough to save a lot of lives but not enough to prevent the major destruction of property and infrastructures.

Natural disasters, including epidemics/pandemics, earthquakes, volcano activity, droughts, etc., have historically been a much greater cause of human mortality and social destruction than human actions (except to the extent that human actions increase risk of natural disasters, like the levee system of the Mississippi). The largest human caused disaster was WWII, approximately 50 million deaths. This is considerably smaller than the estimated mortality associated with smallpox alone in the first three quarters of the 20th century.

"it is easier to cope with natural disasters than terrorist attacks"

This is not a statement of fact,this is speculation. What is the evidence for this statement? What is the biggest terrorist attack in our history? 9/11. How does this compare with Hurricane Katrina? Or proportionately with the last great San Francisco earthquake. Or with the major epidemics in American cities in the first half of the 19th century. Or with the influenza pandemic (approximately 500,000 deaths). Much, much smaller.

posted by: Roger Albin on 09.08.05 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

Sorry Roger, but you say that WWII was a single event? Perhaps the bombing of Dresden was, and it could just as easily be labelled a terrorist attack as an act of war. What is the point of this comparison anyway? For the record, Katrina was neither the biggest nor the most deadly deadly event in the region, either natural or man-made, as Galveston has suffered more both from a hurricane and an explosion than New Orleans has from Katrina, if it is to be judged by loss of human life. On the other hand, never before in our history have we suffered the catastrophic loss of an entire city.

No, I rather believe that the lesson of this Katrina experience is that we, as a people, have become soft, and divorced from the simple fact that life is all about loss, and the unexpected, and how we deal with it. If we can learn from that, then maybe, just maybe, when the inevitable bigger event takes place we will be more able to survive it. This is not about the numbers of dead and displaced, it is all about what comes after. Arguing over whether man or nature is a more efficient killer does not help us to recover from this tragedy, nor to prepare for the next. We can only hope that we learn the lesson. As 9/11 showed, memory is short, and the party that has forgotten the lessons of 9/11 now wants to use the suffering of their voters to score political shots against their bogeyman, rather than focus on the incompetent initial response, and how corruption over decades has laid the groundwork for much of this tragedy. Remember that the hurricane had passed when the levee broke. That part of the tragedy was man-made, and had little to do with Mother Nature.

posted by: Michael Gersh on 09.08.05 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

A commentator pointed out this morning that Alabama has had 10 disaster declarations related to natural events in the last 10 yrs and 0 related to terrorism attacks. Yet the Feds insist on shoving bio, nuclear and related terrorism disaster money on them.

Amy Zegart may be well-versed on the terrorism response/preparedness or whatever. But, I think most Americans are going to realize how much the terrorism hype was overblown at the expense of our being prepared for natural disasters. Whether you believe global warning is related to greenhouse gases and other man-made causes, or that it is a natural cyclical thing, I don't think anyone denies at this point that it is real. When you add to this the cyclical naure of hurricanes becomming stronger every 30 yrs or so, well, strap in folks we have a wild ride ahead and most of our elected officials are looking back and not forward regarding what real dangers are ahead of us.

posted by: mprice on 09.08.05 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

Maybe I missed it above, but what about, you know, the citizens? Perhaps they should be taught how to fend for themselves if need be.

Part of that would include teaching people how to work together and the basics of survival, aka the Boy Scouts.

Our friends at the HuffPost also had a blog entry praising Cuba's system. While it certainly had its totalitarian features, it also included neighborhood groups trying to get people in their area out. I kicked that around a bit, and thought about, for instance, having a few (unpaid) volunteers per block, reporting to one of three or four (unpaid) neighborhood captains, reporting to the city apparatus. They would be provided with communications equipment, including a backup power source of some kind.

I doubt whether NO had such an organized effort. While it does sound it bit Soviet, it could be made more American and it might prevent things like what happened in NO.

posted by: The Lonewacko Blog on 09.08.05 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

Sorry, Michael, but you seem to be agreeing with me that natural disasters, potentiated by human short sightedness, are much more devastating than human caused events. Your Galveston example is a case in point. You are, however, very wrong about unexpectedness and some of your other statements are just plain silly. While many natural disasters come without warning, that is not the same as being unexpected or unpredictable. The disaster that has overtaken the Gulf region and specifically New Orleans was predicted in excruciating detail repeatedly for decades. If you want a nice example, check out the latest New Yorker. It has an excerpt from John McPhee's excellent series The Control of Nature, published in 1987. High grade hurricanes, storm surges, levee breakages, earthquakes near active fault zones, tsunamis are all inevitable events. Preparation and rational planning are the key issues. Earthquakes in California have lower mortality rates than comparable events in Mexico in large part because of enforced building codes that make structures safer. If you want to use resources efficiently, then you have to accurately estimate the biggest threats. As we've seen in the last few days, incorrect allocation of resources can have disastrous consequences. Adolescent pontificating about loss and nature of life isn't merely nihilistic, its actually irresponsible.

posted by: Roger Albin on 09.08.05 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

The worst case scenario is a man made disaster with no warning

No. The worst case scenarios are a number of astronomical events including extinction level events, though most of them we could do little about. An Atlantic tsunami would still rank higher though.

posted by: Lord on 09.08.05 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

The Keystone Kops response in NOLA is a result of the fact that the NOLA PD is a bunch of Keystone Kops.

posted by: Scipio on 09.08.05 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

DAn, you mispelt security, I think that is a metaphor for you thesis and you premise is awful too.

posted by: Dick Sharp on 09.08.05 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

'hindsight' wrote: '"Natural" hits come from a single source. (you've heard of the Bible belt, haven't you)'.

Clearly this is true. This was the personal revenge of Mother Gaia upon President George Walker Bush for refusing to ratify the Kyoto treaty. We have it upon no less an authority than the Environment Minister in the German government.

All natural disasters are clearly related to global warming. You have Been Warned. Again.

posted by: Don Stadler on 09.08.05 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

While there are many problems with disaster exercises, one of the biggest is getting the elected officials there to train. It's like pulling teeth - there's never enough time until it is after the disaster/terrorist event.

Then, everybody has to feel good about how they did, particularly the officials (they won't come back and they may remove you from your job). The crucial part: follow through post exercise on fixing the problems. Not done enough.

posted by: Peggie Duggan on 09.08.05 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

The point about this natural disaster is that, no matter what the training that they did whenever, the basic job of evacuation (which their disaster plan was predicated on) was bungled. Every failure from there on can be directly blamed on the failure of step one.

And of course, every training session is only a fraction of what the worst case scenario is. I'm sure the residents of Chicago would just love the Mayor waking them up at 3am on a Sunday and telling them to drive out of town. You train and then your plan evaluates the drill and makes some assumptions when you scale your "worst case" plan up.

Should FEMA plan for the eventuality that takes into account complete incompetence on the administrative level at local and state government, rather than the normal mindset of augmenting the local efforts already underway? You'd better believe that they will revise their planning to anticipate that very event.

Anyone in emergency services knows that you enter every incident with a mindset, based on what you have trained for and what information you are getting from official sources.

Suppose FEMA was being told "basic evacuation is handled and we're moving to S&R" (just go with my supposition - we'll have to wait for the official postmortem to know for sure.) Assume they don't have anyone watching Geraldo, but are just getting info flowing upstream from the New Orleans and Louisiana Homeland Security. Does that change your perspective on how they handled their part of this job?

posted by: Patrick on 09.08.05 at 12:37 PM [permalink]


New Orleans will rebuild.

The lessons learned from Katrina will be forgotten by state and city officials within a few months.

Sooner or later a hurricane will hit a few miles to the west of New Orleans and New Orleans will become Lake New Orleans.

posted by: Bill on 09.08.05 at 12:37 PM [permalink]


I have a post up at my new blog about one idea for improving local, state, and federal training for disaster preparedness and response.

It's at
Some of it:

"The Nagin, Blanco, and Brown Training Center for Disaster Preparedness and Response

As we transition to from saving lives to cleaning up to focusing on what went wrong and how things can be better, one of the areas we'll focus on is the training in disaster preparedness and response that civilian leadership receives. We're obviously going to spend much more money on training, which is a very good thing.

For analogous lessons, I've been trying to think about how the military reacted in the wake of Vietnam. Most of America may not realize how the miltary transformed itself from a dispirited force to regain its place as the most powerful military the world has ever seen. There were lots of factors, and more learned commentators than I can better explain them to you. But one of the main factors was surely the revolution in military training that military leadership developed. The Top Gun School in California was developed to improve the dog fighting skills of Navy pilots, as was the Red Flag Exercise at Nellis AFB for Air Force pilots. The Army developed the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, CA for armored forces and the Joint Readiness Training Center for light infantry. (Maybe some Marines out there can talk about how Marine training has improved. I just can't speak to it.) What do all of these training centers have in common? Realistic training exercises with live OPFOR and brutally honest Observer/Controllers to review performance and lessons learned afterwards.

While we're thinking about what to do with New Orleans, I think DHS should establish there the Nagin, Blanco, and Brown Training Center for Disaster Preparedness and Response. DHS should bring civic leaders and emergency response officials there for realistic training. How realistic? After the daily training is done, let those off shift stay in a powerless dark smelly building as they listen to the gunfire next door at the new live fire range for National Guard and law enforcement. It would look like a MOUT range (Military Operations in Urban Terrain), but would be geared a bit more to law enforcement and fire rescue, with some bad guys in the middle of a CQB range."

posted by: Procrastinus on 09.08.05 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

Every after action report I was involed with while on active duty had the same lessons:
1.Troops were great
2. Staff learned alot
3. Air was late
4. Comm sucked.

posted by: Tassled Loafered Leech on 09.08.05 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

Post a Comment:


Email Address:



Remember your info?