The Katrina Failure
As a first responder with incident command system and major incident response training (albeit focused on terrorism, but the discipline crosses into disaster response too), I watched in horror as the response to Katrina flopped, floundered and fell hard on so many occasions early on.
I admit, I was surprised. I had bought the whole package hook, line and sinker - After 9/11 we'd spent billions on grant funding through Homeland Security to get training and equipment to every police, fire and emergency rescue department from Anchorage, Alaska to Zap, North Dakota. I've got the Standardized Equipment List, I've looked at the new gear, I've seen the shiny new HazMat trucks, and I've trained in the supposed "system" for immediate response to major events. They put it out there, I looked at it and I believed, because, well, how could I not? I am a cynic and pessimist, but how could I not believe that we weren't doing this right? We had every reason to get it right, and we had all the bright shiny new toys to make it look like we were doing it. I should have known better.
In the first major event we've faced as a nation, as responders, since 9/11, the system failed miserably.
It took at least 24 hours after the levee's broke in New Orleans to raise the alarm within FEMA or the Department of Homeland Security.
DHS didn't give the disaster the designation of "incident of national significance", a designation that in the new systems allows resources to be freed up for response, for 36 hours.
It took two days for a military task force to respond, when the DoD is the only agency that has the resources and manpower to effectively mobilize and transport the needed personnel, equipment and goods to mount an effective response to this scale of disaster.
And the failure didn't begin there - Local officials at all levels and from NOLA to Biloxi delayed evacuation orders, or preparation of local response efforts for critical hours, for unknowable reasons.
The NOLA levees failed before the hurricane made landfall, and it took far too long for any sort of response to happen, much less an organized federal one. And yet, the federal level is supposed to be the head of the chain, the over-brain of some sort of hydra of responders. But no one knew anything. Communication was non-existent, and it took hours to get accurate reports of damage back to local authorities, much less on up the chain to state or federal - because there was no chain. Everyone sat there, on their thumbs, and watched the 'cane make landfall when money had already been freed up to respond, then waited a little more while everything went to hell, and then started trying to play catch up.
In the days that followed the man charged with directing FEMA, the supposed god-brain of the ICS, was thrown to the wolves as the fool he is and resigned for his mismanagement (a pattern he started when he ran the International Arabian Horse Association into bankruptcy and near non-existence a few years back. I've been involved with horses all my life, and horse people and horse organizations - its simply not that hard a job, and it takes a lot of effort to do that to a horse organization). Unfortunately for Michael Brown, although he sewed what he ended up reaping, he was made to suffer for more sins than his own. The entire system and the people behind it failed, and only one of them got canc'ed.The same people are still in the same places to make the same mistakes.
And what does this mean for terrorism?
It means we are as un-prepared to respond to a major attack as we were on September 10th, 2001. The added money, new structure, and increased levels of command structure may actually make the entire system less able to respond than it was back then.
Not only do we have this weakness, but we have exposed it to the entire world in the most public way possible. It should be embarrassing, but the damage done by it is so much greater than a few red faces that a little shame pales in comparison.