Katrina's lesson: US 'not safe' enough

Some Americans perished needlessly in hurricane Katrina because the US government has not adopted several reforms urged by the Sept. 11 commission.

That is the view of former commission chairman Thomas Kean and vice-chairman Lee Hamilton. The two now lead the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, a successor to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks.

"A number of our recommendations were in the area of emergency preparedness. Many of those recommendations have not been implemented. We believe had they been implemented that the tragedy might have been less severe in terms of human lives," Mr. Kean said at a Monitor breakfast. "Do we have to wait for another national emergency to get some of these things done?"

Hurricane Katrina has altered Mr. Hamilton's assessment of overall security. "We often said during ... the 9/11 hearings that we were safer but not safe," he said. "What struck me after Katrina was that we were not as safe as I thought we were."

Two reforms are vital in the post-Katrina world, they argue. One is to make clear who is in charge at the federal level during emergencies. The other, they say, is to require every state to adopt a detailed command-and-control plan for disasters - and link it to receiving funding from the US Department of Homeland Security.

"It was obvious that nobody knew who was in charge when Katrina struck. We had the same problem on 9/11," Kean said. "If you don't have a unified command structure with somebody in charge and somebody following through ... it is going to cost lives."

The two also urged Congress to adopt the Sept. 11 panel's plea for homeland-security funds to be allocated on the basis of priority rather than dispensing security money to all states regardless of risk, as is the current practice. "You can't really put the money in the best places until you have identified your priorities," Kean said. The Department of Homeland Security, he noted, missed the deadline for filing a report to Congress ranking the nation's most vulnerable areas.

Hamilton, who spent 34 years in Congress, recognizes the challenges the government faces in moving more quickly on the reforms. "All of these things sound simple, but they really require very, very hard choices by policymakers," he said.

Hamilton warned that "we could easily have a disaster much, much worse than Katrina." The greatest risks to the nation, he says, are a nuclear weapon exploding in a populated area and a biological attack on the food supply. "In setting priorities, you have to prepare for the worst cases," Hamilton said. Given the other threats the United States faces, "I think we have overdone it, personally," by spending an estimated $20 billion to protect passengers and crew on commercial airlines. "We are not preparing for other kinds of threats that would be far more devastating."

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