WASHINGTON – Hurricane Katrina ( search) and other recent storms have exposed cracks in the nation's emergency response plans for terrorism, and more should be done to tighten up standards that guide federal, state and local government officials when natural or man-made disasters occur, a group of government and private-sector officials told a Senate panel Wednesday.
"As Hurricane Katrina and Rita reminded us, large-scale emergency responses are bound to occur again in the future, whether it's terrorist attacks or natural disaster. The question, Mr. Chairman, is, are we better prepared for the next major terrorist attack or the next natural disaster?" former Sen. Slade Gorton ( search) asked Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
"After 9/11, after Katrina ... we are still not prepared," said Gorton, who sat on the Sept. 11 Commission and is now part of the effort to put in place the panel's recommendations.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein ( search), D-Calif., who attended Wednesday's hearing, agreed with Gorton.
"I don't believe that the cities of America are really equipped to handle a major disaster," Feinstein said.
The panelists said strides have been made in emergency preparedness, but the hurricanes showed that first responders from differing jurisdictions still either have difficulty or can't talk to each other. There are also red-tape problems across counties and states — such as medical licensing — that prevent workers from helping immediately and local emergency response plans are sometimes ineffective or nonexistent.
Kyl, who is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security, Feinstein and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said one of their chief concerns was making sure that the areas most in need of money got it, using a funding model that focused on the highest-risk areas instead of equal shares among agencies.
Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution scholar, endorsed the idea, saying the government should focus on the highest risk problems while considering their feasibility. For instance, he said, protecting the nation's chemical plants is much more worthy than fortifying public places like shopping malls.
Nevertheless, he said, the overall problem of emergency preparedness cannot be overestimated.
"The problem is inherently hard, probably harder than any problem I've ever studied in public policy," O'Hanlon said.
The lawmakers said first-responder groups need to have separate radio systems that can communicate with each other — known as interoperability.
One of the problems, the panelists said, is the lack of telecommunications radio spectrum. The federal government would set aside certain bandwidths under one plan under consideration, but that bandwidth would not be set aside until 2008 at the earliest.
After hearing criticism from Gorton about the classification of a Department of Homeland Security ( search) transportation system emergency plan, Kyl suggested that more should be done to protect some information from becoming classified at the expense of better response tactics.
Kyl said it seemed that one of the first priorities of the committee should be to make sure that whatever "needs to be classified is not overly restricted, and shared with the people that have to react to it ... We'll try to work on that."
While the two-hour hearing focused much on what problems there were, including what could happen in the event of biological, chemical and nuclear attacks on major cities, there were a few light moments, including one that pitted the safety of Congress against that of the White House.
During his presentation, IEM Inc. vice president Wayne Thomas had shown a color-coded map of a the result of a dirty bomb scenario on the National Mall in Washington. The model, Thomas explained, assumed there was a westward wind, and the red, yellow and green plume of destruction stretched eastward from the Capitol, likely killing thousands.
"So we could easily have turned the wind direction around, ... exploded the radiological device at the foot of the west side of the Capitol and had a very major disaster for the congressional office buildings, Supreme Court, Library of Congress and the Capitol itself?" Kyl asked.
Thomas pointed out that his model assumed that there would have been a big tourist event on the mall and that the wind would have carried the harmful material over the crowds toward the White House.
"Well there you go. ... No good can come of this," Kyl said, drawing chuckles from the audience. "Boy, you've got to have a sense of humor in this or it gets very depressing very, very quickly."