By William Fisher
The U.S. Government’s sluggish and uncoordinated response to Hurricane Katrina again drew public attention to some of the key recommendations of the 9/11 Commission that have yet to be implemented or have made unsatisfactory or marginal progress.
This is the conclusion reached in a new report by the 9/11 Commissioners, now operating privately as the Public Discourse Project. Since the end of its public mandate, the former commissioners have held a series of public hearings on what the government has done – and failed to do – to correct the flaws it exposed in its best-selling report last year.
Many of their recommendations are as relevant to natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina as they are to man-made terrorist attacks.
Among the steps on which the report says the government has made only “minimal progress” is the allocation of radio spectrum that would allow police, fire, emergency medical services and other first responders to communicate with one another, and the National Guard and agencies of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
This was a major shortcoming on 9/11, and cost several hundred lives. Authorities experienced the exact problem during Katrina, four years after 9/11.
The Report said legislation pending before Congress would compel the return of the analog broadcast spectrum and its reallocation, including for public safety purposes. “Congress should mandate this reallocation by the earliest possible date.”
Four senior lawmakers, writing in The New York Times this morning, said, “After watching the horrific communications breakdown that occurred during Katrina, will we wait another four years before acting? How many more lives will be lost? What kind of catastrophic disaster is necessary for Congress to give these heroes the tools they need to save lives?” The four are Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Reps. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and Curt Weldon (R-Pa.).
The Commissioners’ report also charged that the government has made only minimal progress toward the adoption of an Incident Command System (ICS). “When multiple agencies or multiple jurisdictions are involved, they should adopt a unified command. … In the future, the (DHS) should consider making funding contingent on aggressive and realistic training in accordance with ICS and unified command procedures.”
The lack of a unified command system was one of the major obstacles contributing to widespread chaos and confusion during Hurricane Katrina.
The Commissioners said, “Many fire and police departments and state and local authorities are already well versed in using the ICS — others are being trained in it. Hurricane Katrina demonstrates a major failure: the absence of unified command…Clear lines of command and control for responding authorities are essential to minimize civilian and responder casualties.”
The Commissioners said the DHS set October 2004 as the deadline for full Incident Command System compliance ‘to the maximum extent possible’. ”The hard deadline for full compliance as a condition for federal preparedness funds is October 1, 2006. This date must not slip. All jurisdictions must train and exercise the Incident Command System as it applies to them”, the report warned.
The Commissioners also gave the government a failing grade on preparing a plan to “regularly assess the types of threats the country faces to determine (a) the adequacy of the government’s plans—and the progress against those plans—to protect America’s critical infrastructure and (b) the readiness of the government to respond to the threats that the United States might face.”
It graded the government’s progress in carrying out this assessment as “unsatisfactory”.
It said, “The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 required DHS to issue a report by June 15, 2005, assessing the risks and vulnerabilities of the nation’s critical infrastructure. This report has not yet been released.”
This type of report would have assessed the nation’s ability to respond to natural disasters such as Katrina, as well as terrorist threats.
“Regular national assessments of threat, vulnerability, and preparedness will ensure that government efforts are making measurable progress in reducing the overall terrorist threat. DHS should produce the report…as soon as possible, and demonstrate its capability to regularly review and modify the assessment to reflect the changing threat environment and state of readiness,” the report said.
Finally, it urged the DHS to encourage the private sector, principally the insurance and credit-rating industries, to establish standards for private preparedness, adding that that only minimal progress has been made in this area.
The Commissioners recalled that in a May 2005 speech to private sector representatives, (DHS) Secretary (Michael) Chertoff “correctly noted that preparedness is not solely a government responsibility. The insurance and credit-rating industries are beginning to incorporate national preparedness standards into their underwriting and risk-analysis criteria. Leaders in the legal profession are beginning to evaluate the National Preparedness Standard as a “legal standard of care.”
Still, it said, “awareness of the Standard throughout the corporate sector is low".
“In another attack and in any natural disaster, private-sector employees will likely again be on the front lines. As the 9/11 Commission Report showed, employees of enterprises that institutionalize a high level of emergency preparedness are far more likely to survive in a disaster.”
The Commissioners urged corporate leaders to “take the lead in encouraging all American businesses, especially those in high-risk areas, or who own critical national infrastructure, to incorporate National Preparedness Standards into
their business practices. DHS should make private-sector preparedness a higher priority. The insurance and credit-rating industries should incorporate the National Preparedness Standard into their evaluations.”
Prof. Beau Grosscup of California State University at Chico says, “This provides further proof of two current political realities. First, for the Bush administration the real purpose of the 9/11 Commission was to shift the blame away from it and the Pentagon and onto the 'Clinton-wrecked' intelligence agencies, notably the FBI. Secondly, and more important to the future of the nation, making government work goes against the Bush Administration's privatization agenda and thus is to be systematically avoided.”