Victim Of Terrorism

By Terrell E. Arnold
When Hurricane Katrina blew ashore last weekend and started to disassemble much of the Gulf coast, several things began to unravel. First was the demonstration that response teams were not equipped to deal with such a severe emergency. Communications largely did not work--an incredible situation in the day of cell phones and satellites. Coordination of federal, state and local response capabilities was absent, in part because they could not talk to each other, but, equally if not more important, because they had not drilled intensively to develop well-honed responses.
These failings, along with the emergent horrors of destruction of Gulf coast cities such as Biloxi and the flooding of New Orleans, created a firestorm of criticism that, sadly, was well deserved. That need not have been, and it should not have been if the Bush Administration had moved ahead with well developed plans FEMA had, at least from the early 1990s, for building and improving the national disaster response system.
During the early 1990s, Bill Clinton's first term in the White House, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was well focused on building a credible national system for managing emergencies. Several critics said that under FEMA Director, James Lee Witt, the organization was finally on the right track. With support from consultants, FEMA staff developed a program called Survivable Crisis Management.
Before moving into a critique of the present situation, it is very revealing to look at the work FEMA had in progress. To promote and develop its Survivable Crisis Management (SCM) program, FEMA published two guides: An Introduction to Survivable Crisis Management, and the Survivable Crisis Management Development Guide. Key paragraphs of the Introduction explain the situation and the requirement very clearly.
" During the last decade, our Presidents declared 250 disasters across the United States and territories. Those events cost almost $7 billion in Federal disaster assistance and affected millions of people. Such numbers indicate that a costly disaster can strike any community at any time"
"If you are the Governor, the Mayor, the chairman of a county board of supervisors, or the leader of any emergency response organization, you have the legal responsibility to manage the consequences of any emergency that affects your jurisdiction, regardless of its cause."
"To assure that you can respond effectively to protect and assist people your emergency response capabilities must survive the emergency itself.(emphasis added) No matter what causes the emergency, you must be able to direct and control emergency operations within your State or local jurisdiction and coordinate with other jurisdictions and the Federal Government. The ability to survive and continue to direct and control emergency operations and continue to govern is called Survivable Crisis Management (SCM)."
" FEMA's goal is a nationwide network of statewide SCM capabilities, all compatible with each other and with those of the Federal Government."
Under SCM, FEMA set out to create and coordinate national capabilities to deal with virtually any foreseeable emergency. The spectrum cited in the guide is as follows:
Spectrum Of Emergencies
 Lowest Risk  Intermediate Risk Highest Risk 
 Nuclear War
Major Conventional War
Terrorist Risk
Theater War
Major System Failures
Low Intensity Conflict
Nuclear Incidents
Small Scale Attacks 
Major Fires
System Failure
Two fundamental premises of the FEMA approach to SCM were (a) a basic emergency response capability is needed to deal with any disaster, and key preparedness elements are common to all emergencies. Several home truths were well understood. The plan could not be accomplished without a lot of coordinated effort across the whole emergency preparedness system, from state and local to federal. The plan required exceptional attention to communications, meaning that the emergency systems had to be sturdy enough to survive even extreme emergencies. Effective coordination in any given emergency would depend on well developed and well rehearsed operating practices and protocols. To assure creation of a coordinated nationwide system at all state and local and federal levels of emergency management, probably several billion dollars would be needed. To lead that effort, FEMA had to be a Federal Government organization of well-funded and influential status in the Federal system.
We may never know how well the SCM system would have developed or how well it would have worked in an emergency such as Katrina. The basic concepts are still reflected in FEMA's strategic plan, relevant courses are regularly offered at FEMA'S Emergency Management Institute, and SCM itself is offered as a course by the International Disaster/Fire and Training Institute. But the promise of SCM has not been reflected in the response to Katrina. Why?
Because FEMA was downgraded in the creation of the new Department of Homeland Security. FEMA lost its cabinet level status and access. Funds that could have gone to building the SCM or any comparable system were used to create the new Department. The central focus of national emergency preparedness, especially after 9-11, was shifted to terrorism and warfare. The Clinton era name, SCM, was probably a no-no in the new Homeland Security Department, but the concepts were sound; all the new administration needed to do pick its own pet name.
In this instance, FEMA was a victim of two kinds of terrorism. The first was a Bush administration focus on global terrorism that stole the money as well as the management priority. The second was a power struggle in the new Department that stole the power and influence of FEMA and sent it into decline. Perhaps crudely stated, FEMA was a victim of the Bush Administration fixation on Osama bin Laden. More simply, perhaps, FEMA was a victim of the Bush/neo-con fixation on terrorism, fortress America, and projecting military power abroad.
Many people have had severe misgivings about the War on Terrorism, the focus on warfare that has dominated US governance for the past five years. But for the Bush team Katrina is a wakeup call.
SCM might not have been the last word in emergency management for the country, because every emergency management jurisdiction knows the problem is a moving target and it takes money, dedication, and skill to stay on top of it. But if SCM had been in place and functional, the response to Katrina would have been a lot better organized, lives and property would have been saved, and the life of our country would have been much less disrupted. At this moment, it is already clear that Katrina will cost us a great deal more in lives, property and money than 9-11. The biggest enemy was not Katrina, but our own lack of national level readiness to deal with it.
The writer was a Department of State crisis management trainer in the 1980s and 1990s. In the early 1990s, he led a small consulting team for a Northern Virginia management consulting firm that assisted FEMA in developing the SCM plans and documents.
He will welcome comments or questions at



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