Hurricane Warning: Homeland Security Not Prepared, Funded

Posted September 30, 2003 at 3:13pm

Imagine we had a new and major terrorist attack here in the United States — but we had 10 days’ notice that it was coming and knew pretty much where it would be centered. [IMGCAP(1)]

We had a pretty good parallel to that with Hurricane Isabel, and it underscores the pathetic state of our emergency response system. Despite 10 days’ notice, the national capital area failed miserably in its prime responsibilities after the hurricane hit. It is simply indefensible that we had residents serviced by Potomac Electric Power Co. who had to wait 11 days to get back their electricity. I was comparatively lucky — my house went only four days without power.

One question I had while sitting in the dark was what impact there was from the absence of National Guard and reserve forces, who typically provide support during and after natural disasters but who are now largely on active duty because of Iraq and Afghanistan.

I frankly don’t care what excuses Pepco and the other power companies (and their enablers in local government) have for the delays. My point here is not to single out the power companies for their abject failure after Isabel. It is to point out the indefensible gaps in homeland security that are being treated with indifference by the administration and Congress.

The House last week passed its first-ever Homeland Security appropriations bill — and crowed about it. After all, it passed 417-8, suggesting widespread satisfaction with the bill. Congress did not just rubber-stamp the administration’s spending request; it added a billion dollars to it, for a total of $29 billion.

But by any reasonable and objective standard, the bill goes a few yards toward dealing with a program that requires a mile of travel. The overwhelming vote masks deep gaps in funding for real needs for homeland defense. And the bill largely ignores the powerful, nonpartisan analysis made by a Council on Foreign Relations task force on emergency responders, shortchanging by billions the amount needed to prepare for the next real terrorist attack on our homeland.

I served on the CFR task force, which was headed by former Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) and included as senior counselor Richard Clarke, perhaps the leading authority we have on terrorism, with distinguished service in both Republican and Democratic administrations. There was nothing partisan or ideological about the task force and its deliberations; its other members included a former secretary of State, chairman of the Joint Chiefs and head of the CIA and FBI.

Our conclusions on the emergency response system is evident: It is drastically underfunded and dangerously unprepared. Our basic five-year plan comes to just under $100 billion — roughly $20 billion a year. This is without bells and whistles. The $20 billion-a-year figure for emergency responders is thus not an inflated figure, and the task force emphasized that it needed to be sustained over five years to bring the system up to speed. So how much is in the Homeland Security appropriations just passed with such fanfare by the House? About $4.2 billion. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security, insists that is all the fire, police and emergency response units can spend efficiently. Please.

The problem goes way beyond money. The apparatus to deal with homeland security and emergency response is a mess. The Homeland Security Department is not completely devoid of impressive people — I would take Undersecretary and former Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) on my team any time — but in general its top management team has been a revolving door, as mediocre people are pushed out the door while talented people see the disarray and get out quickly. The department’s relations with Congress are not good.

Some of the problems are natural ones that come to any institution in the throes of major reorganization. But this is no simple reorganization. It is the largest and most complex in history, done on a crash basis, leaving many of the 170,000 employees confused about their roles, uncertain about their career paths and unsure where they will be residing.

Some Congressional Republicans, like Homeland Security Chairman Christopher Cox (Calif.) and Rep. Jennifer Dunn (Wash.), have been working inside to make things better. But most of their GOP colleagues have stayed reflexively loyal to the administration, leaving the public criticism to Democrats, which adds an unfortunate element of partisan tension to a hugely important issue that should not be partisan.

Congress generally has had its own clear failings in the homeland security area. The Senate has refused to create a separate committee to oversee the new department or respond to the entire homeland security problem; the House created a temporary select committee with no real authority and filled it with other committee chairmen more interested in protecting their turf than making a new committee work.

The hurricane was another warning signal, not as stark as the mother of all warning signals — Sept. 11, 2001 — but stark enough. If the Washington area was brought to its knees for days by a storm that came and went in less than a day, leaving behind picture perfect weather, what would a real attack do? The answer is not pretty, and the response of the federal government so far has been nothing short of pathetic.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.