If we weren't hurricane-ready, what about a terrorist attack?

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Lesson learned. That is what we must hope for in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The chaos and dislocation caused by those storms should be a wake-up call for a society at war with terrorism but which for the most part has not been personally touched by it.

This is not to diminish in any way the sacrifice of those who perished on 9/11 or the almost 2,000 military personnel who have died since in the campaign to liberate Iraq. But though their families live each day mourning the loss of their loved ones, most of us have not experienced that anguish or been exposed to great loss or challenge.

The flooding, the fires, the mass exodus from threatened cities along the Texas-Louisiana coast, the deaths, the emergency housing for tens of thousands of evacuees, was not, of course, caused by Al Qaeda but by the elements.

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There can be little doubt, however, that Al Qaeda would seek great satisfaction (as Osama bin Laden gloatingly did after 9/11) if their next attack against the American mainland could replicate such havoc. It is the principal objective of any terrorist to create fear and confusion among the maximum number of the targeted populace with the hope of undermining its resolve and continued resistance.

Spurred by the tragedy of 9/11, has America in the four years since prepared itself adequately for a terrorist attack with the same kind of consequences as occasioned by Katrina and Rita? For the evacuation of perhaps 3 million people from urban areas? What about the helpless left behind, unreachable and unattended?

Much has been accomplished since 9/11, but the lessons from Katrina and Rita suggest that many American cities may still not be any more prepared for a devastating terrorist attack than they were for the awesome destructive force of a major hurricane.

Katrina clearly showed us that there was tardy initial preparation for a threat of such magnitude, compounded by confusion over the responsibility of local, state, and federal agencies. Preparedness for Rita was better, but there was chaos and gridlock as some 3 million people attempted evacuation along crowded highways, often littered with cars that had run out of gas. The prospect of such wholesale evacuation being ordered from Los Angeles or New York is almost impossible to contemplate.

Several influential voices have been beating the alarm tocsins about all this, warning the ponderous US bureaucracy to move on an emergency wartime footing to redress the situation. Even before 9/11 the US Commission on National Security, cochaired by former US Sen. Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire, had warned that the civil (nonmilitary) aspects of homeland security "must be enhanced." The commission also urged that the National Guard - now deeply immersed in Iraq - should be trained and equipped for a significant role in homeland defense.

Mr. Rudman went on to chair a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) task force, which warned a year after 9/11 that "America remains dangerously unprepared to prevent and respond to a catastrophic terrorist attack on US soil."

In 2003, Rudman chaired yet another CFR task force specifically focusing on the state of preparedness of "emergency responders," the police, firefighters, and medical personnel who would be first on the scene of any homeland catastrophe. While recognizing progress made by the new Department of Homeland Security, the task force found local emergency responders "drastically underfunded" and still "dangerously unprepared" to handle a catastrophic attack, "particularly one involving chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or high-impact conventional weapons."

The task force said a major obstacle hampering America's preparedness efforts was that funding had been sidetracked and stalled due to a politicized appropriations process, the slow distribution of funds by federal agencies, and bureaucratic red tape at all levels of government.

It called for a number of actions requiring more money, including a national 911 system; significant enhancement of search and rescue capabilities in major cities and FEMA; training emergency medical technicians to respond to mass casualties; helping develop "surge capacity" in the nation's hospitals; and support for "an extensive series of national exercises" that would improve response techniques.

The task force credited the Bush administration, Congress, governors, and mayors with taking important steps since 9/11 to respond to catastrophic events. But task force members today say much remains to be done.

Last week's stark pictures of chaos and hardship in Louisiana and Texas are testimony to the credibility of that view.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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