TCS Daily

There Are Different Kinds of 'Preparedness'

By Melana Zyla Vickers - September 5, 2005 12:00 AM

A professional Cassandra by the name of Lloyd J. Dumas, author of a book on "human fallibility and dangerous technologies," took time out of his criticism of the U.S. military, U.S. nuclear weapons, U.S. space-shuttle missions and other such horrors to wade into the waters of hurricane Katrina this week -- and denounce the U.S. government's preparedness for evacuating New Orleans.

"It's remarkable that with the massive restructuring of the federal government that took place with the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security they don't have more well thought-out plans to evacuate a city like New Orleans," which would be useful in natural disasters but also "in the event of a terrorist attack," he said. Such "thought-out plans" form part of Dumas's vision of a U.S. that does not fight its enemies militarily, but rather treats them like so many perilous hurricanes, protecting itself with "passive defenses."

Of course, though it's hard to notice through the devastation, New Orleans did have elaborate evacuation plans -- and used them this week, successfully evacuating 80% of the population. The city administration had pulled up its socks after a debacle with Hurricane Georges in 1998. The trouble is that not even the most elaborate emergency plans survive contact with a real catastrophe: Levees break, people remain overly hopeful, people refuse to leave, people can't leave for reasons other than those that were projected, essential helpers don't do their jobs, etc...

Despite this natural tendency of things to fall apart, Dumas and others continue to try to make a parallel between emergency preparedness in natural disasters and passive defenses against terrorist attacks -- a parallel that isn't terribly sound. That's because preparedness in natural disasters benefits from the increasing predictability of the disasters. Terrorist strikes, meanwhile, rely on surprise.

Consider where nature's massive attacks, and those of human adversaries, diverge:

1) Predictability. The main reason the death tolls in hurricanes have dropped in the last century is predictability. Widespread use of Doppler radar and more advanced computing have since 1980s allowed meteorologists to predict when winds will make landfall and what path they'll take.

The terrorism equivalent to Doppler radar is far less helpful. It's intelligence gathering, a flawed human art form that depends on luck and that only occasionally gets the answer right.

2) Defenses: Reinforced concrete, levees that have kept water out of below-sea-level New Orleans since before the Civil War, plywood on windows, wind-resistant glass, higher construction standards -- all these have defended against the ravages of hurricanes. They've succeeded on balance, although, as we have seen with the tragedies this week, defenses don't always work against a powerful offense.

The terrorism equivalent of reinforced concrete is, well, reinforced concrete, according to many advocates of a passive defense. Loads of it, piled in front of the White House, Congress, high-rises, and millions of other targets across the country. There are others, too -- biometric sensors for tracking known terrorists, X-rays in airports, sniffer dogs in ports and on subways. But the sheer complexity of daily American life, and, frankly, civil liberties, make it impossible to build the counterterrorism equivalent of an impenetrable, efficient Superdome. Besides, who would want to?

3) Mitigation of chaos: Evacuation plans, mobile hospitals, lists of first responders, refugee centers, food stockpiles and public education about what a disaster will look like are essential for keeping populations calm after it strikes. As anyone who has been in a relatively well-prepared state such as Florida during hurricane season can attest, local, state and federal agencies do their utmost to prepare the public for the inevitable natural disaster attack, providing maps, pamphlets, commercials and other information through every possible channel.

Such public education and preparedness can go a long way in counterterrorism as well. After all, it's the chaos after an attack -- fleeing, panic, fear -- that can be the most harmful, as computer modeling of a nuclear "dirty bomb" has shown. But after the evacuation plans are written, the Homeland Security Threat scale, from green to red, has been put in place, and the first responders have given in their emergency telephone numbers, what more can be done? There are, after all, people who for one reason or another never get the message. And there is, after all, such a thing as too much wariness: In Iraq this week, over 600 people died in a stampede triggered by a false alarm about a suicide bombing.

In a small way, Dumas is right: Every city should have well-developed emergency plans. But they're guaranteed to go wrong when disaster actually strikes.

Ultimately, no amount of disaster preparedness and "passive defense" is going to turn mitigation of a terrorist attack into mitigation of a natural disaster -- turn an Osama bin Laden into a Katrina. Killing by Katrina we can minimize with Doppler radar. Killing by bin Laden we can stop only through military defeat.

For more coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and to learn how you can help the victims of this disaster, please visit our special section Tragedy on the Gulf Coast.


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