TCS Daily

Ready or Not?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - May 12, 2004 12:00 AM

I had a worrisome conversation the other day with a former administration official about homeland security. My complaint was that things remain futile and stupid, with airport security checks confiscating tweezers and engaging in other pointless but inconvenient measures, while real antiterrorism efforts remain weak. He agreed, but said that there was another problem: So much effort is being put into anti-terrorism efforts (futile or not) that the United States is now less prepared for major natural disasters than it was a few years ago. If we face a major natural disaster this year, he said, it's likely to turn out badly.

I don't know if that's true -- though I have no reason to doubt him -- and it's also true, as the Congressional Budget Office just noted, that "Distinguishing between activities aimed at making the U.S. homeland more secure against terrorist attacks and those directed toward other purposes is not always easy." The federal government generally distinguishes between "disaster relief" and "homeland security," but in fact there's a lot of overlap between the two -- "first responders" trained and equipped for terrorist attacks, for example, are likely to also be better equipped for dealing with fires, chemical spills, etc.

Still, let's assume he's right. What can we do? Presumably, the government's shift in priorities is based on threat assessment -- the risk of a major terrorist strike, even though we haven't had one since 9/11, is now regarded as higher, meaning that relatively more resources are going that way. Is that assessment correct? And even if it is, what about the weighting? Are terrorist attacks enough more likely to justify downgrading our response to other problems? Beats me. I don't have the intelligence information that the government has, and I'm in no position to decide what's more of a risk -- a major earthquake, a bad hurricane season, or a terrorist nuke. All seem potential risks of uncertain magnitude. All are worth some effort to prevent and remedy them, but how much?

We could put more money into this sort of thing in general (as the pointy-headed boss in Dilbert puts it, "concentrating our resources across the board"), but we're already putting in a lot -- according to the CBO report, spending on homeland security has more than doubled since 2001 -- and it's likely that more money would just be wasted. There's only so much money a government mission can absorb in a short period of time, and my guess, buttressed by some news stories of homeland security pork-barreling, is that we're already past that point.

So what should we do? And -- perhaps more importantly -- who's "we" in this context anyway? Maybe it's not the federal government's job to anticipate every possible problem.

Where natural disasters are concerned, it seems only fair that individuals and local communities should take a hand in looking after themselves. One thing that the Homeland Security Department does that's clearly not a waste of money is to provide advice for individuals on how to prepare for disasters, natural and artificial, at its website. I've written columns on the subject myself (here's one), and there's loads of information on the Web about survival and disaster preparedness. Whatever the federal government does, there's plenty of room for the rest of us to prepare ourselves.

Communities can also look at designing infrastructure to be more reliable when things go wrong (I wrote a column about that too) so that -- for example -- loss of power doesn't cause traffic lights to go out and cause massive tie-ups as people try to leave the area. Oftentimes, a little bit of advance consideration can yield big benefits in this regard. And sometimes, doing things to make life easier in a disaster doesn't even cost a lot of money, it just requires thinking ahead.

When it comes to terrorist nukes, or asteroid strikes, it seems clear that the federal government should take the lead. But where most natural disasters are concerned, there's plenty of room for individuals and communities to share the load, and even when it comes to responding to terrorism, it seems likely that they'll do a better job anticipating, and responding to, local issues than federal planners could anyway. After 9/11, for example, emergency evacuation of lower Manhattan, and logistical support for the rescue effort, was entirely local (and largely non-governmental) for the first four days after the attacks. There's a lesson in that. I hope the right people have learned it.


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