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

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