Forget Laying Blame, Start Learning Lessons

If, in any way, the embarrassingly confused and ineffective federal response to the unprecedented disaster that hit New Orleans this week can be viewed as a dress rehearsal for a future terrorist disaster, then we are catastrophically exposed and need an immediate "moon-shot" level of national leadership to get prepared.

Yes, the president is correct that the federal response to Katrina's assault is unprecedented in its scope. But there is no doubt that the government of the United States -- despite the presence of a professional agency known as FEMA and the massive capabilities of the Pentagon -- was abysmally unprepared to accept the harsh realities and snap into motion as soon as the storm cleared.

But we're talking about future preparedness for a nuclear blast in a U.S. city or containing an attempted terrorist-caused pandemic, and therefore assigning blame for the current mess will do absolutely nothing to improve our response abilities in such a future nightmare.

Instead, using the best we've learned from constructing highly reliable safety systems, such as those in aviation and nuclear power generation, the focus should be on what needs to be fixed -- not just in New Orleans and along the devastated Gulf Coast, but in the command and control abilities of the federal government to respond to a national disaster.

Command and Control

First, as long as we are at war (and we most certainly are), there must never be a split second in which an appropriate cadre of federal command decision makers are not ready to spring into action with full authority to trigger massive movement of people and equipment.

If that means a new civilian, Cheyenne Mountain-style command, then so be it. The White House situation room is obviously not enough. It may mean that we need the domestic equivalent of the Air Force's historic command-and-control abilities, whether in a reinforced fortress near Omaha (Offit Air Force Base, former home of the Strategic Air Command), or in some modified Air Force jet always airborne, or ready to fly, with general officers aboard. (Remember the "we're at war" part?)


Second, in an age of cell phones and satellite links, having no front line communication with rescuers, police, fire, local and state agencies clearly adds up to an unthinkable loss of any command, control, or coordination ability. Some of this is so basic it staggers the imagination, and to witness the utter lack of official communication in New Orleans has been worse than painful.

Command and control of rescues require communications networks. FEMA, after all, recently "war gamed" the very disaster we're witnessing. And among the basic assumptions should have been a complete loss of municipal electricity and dying police walkie-talkie batteries, as well as the fact that few of the various police and fire agencies can talk to each other even when their radios do work.

In a no-warning catastrophe such as a terrorist attack, reliable handheld radio and independently deployed cell and satellite communication links will have to be sent in with ways of constant recharge already thought out and provided. We simply cannot assume that any of the official communications links or cell networks will survive. We'll have to bring them in.

But the bottom line is this: Effective command and control and coordination in the wake of a major municipal disaster ABSOLUTELY DEPENDS on reliable communications.

Air Force Role

How do we get them there? That's why we have an Air Force. Boeing C-17s, Lockheed C-141s, and Lockheed C-5s and C-130s are always available to add to the tactical airlift capabilities of the Army and even the Navy. And if the nearest runways aren't useable, then we airdrop prepared packages from C-130s and remaining C-141s.

So where ARE those prepared emergency pallets of radios and batteries and generators? If the answer is "nowhere," then we need a major national push to create them immediately and distribute such communications-network emergency equipment throughout the nation for immediate deployment. And when I say immediate, I mean the same level of airfield alert we demonstrated for nearly a half century in the Air Force.

A two-hour alert-to-airborne response is completely reasonable. How different things would have been in flooded New Orleans if the decision-makers back in Washington had been able to get a clear and unambiguous picture of what was happening from a growing force of responders who could communicate instantly and effectively!

Human Reactions

Third, if the civilian elements of the U.S. government are not properly schooled in how to "war game" potential disasters, then the Pentagon's polished expertise in this area must be utilized as a national priority of homeland security. We have to anticipate realistically and thoroughly not only what can be done to us, but the entire range of the human reactions and responses to be expected afterward.

This requires the help of sociologists and psychologists from the private sector, most of whom could have looked at the potential flooding of the poorest, unevacuated sections of New Orleans and predicted almost everything that's occurred so far with startling precision.

When we can predict, we can prepare. And when we can grasp what human need really comes down to, on a personal level, we can easily understand that in the terrible aftermath of a nuclear blast or a growing biological pandemic, the quickest way to loss of control and civil chaos is an obvious absence of authority and aid.

The need for immediate visible and audible presence of political leadership cannot be overstated. Without electricity, TV and radio, that means airdropped loudspeakers and bull horns and clear, coordinated directions unambiguously communicated and thoroughly coordinated. In other words, if someone is told to go to a convention center for help, there should be zero potential that aid won't be already coordinated and waiting.

People can tolerate amazing hardship as long as they know help really and truly is coming, and when they have some idea what to do to cooperate in an effort larger than themselves.

The bottom line is this: Katrina was a natural disaster for which we had warning, precedent, and the institutional knowledge within our government of how to respond. The massive failures here absolutely must be immediately used as lessons to create a major national change in our level of preparedness. The terrorists still are out there planning their own Hiroshima. We cannot afford to naval-gaze in the aftermath of Katrina. We have to act now, or we'll see far worse than New Orleans in the future.