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Homeland Security Doesn't Help Communities Cope

The blackout incident proves that Washington has failed to seriously address a central problem: how to keep essential infrastructure functioning after a terrorist attack.
 
 
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Last summer a Minnesota reporter asked me to attend a visit to the Twin Cities by EPA Secretary Christie Whitman to deliver two $115,000 checks to the Minneapolis and Saint Paul water departments.

The checks were part of a $90 million effort by EPA to protect America's drinking water supplies from terrorist attacks; something that Whitman said had become one of EPA's most important missions. My opinion was solicited because I had previously served on the Saint Paul Water Board of Directors.

I commented that a biological attack on the Twin Cities' water supply seemed farfetched, but I assumed that the arrival of federal money to fight against such low probability events meant that more likely catastrophes had already been addressed.

Two weeks and 13 months after Whitman's visit to Minnesota, the electricity system collapsed from Detroit to New York City. Cleveland's four water pumping stations shut down, depriving the entire city of water for more than 15 hours.

Washington knew the electrical system was vulnerable. Right after 9/11 the National Academy of Sciences asked the National Research Council to examine the nation's vulnerabilities. The report, issued a few weeks before Secretary Whitman visited Saint Paul, identified "several very dangerous scenarios." The scenarios of greatest concern involved the electrical system.

A spokeswoman assured reporters that the White House would certainly consider the report's findings.

As we near the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon it is clear that Washington has failed to seriously address the central problem: how to keep essential life support systems functioning after a terrorist attack.

It has not been for lack of money. In the last two years the federal Homeland Security Department has awarded communities some $4.4 billion. Another $3.5 billion will be on the way shortly.

None of the money was available for installing backup generators at Cleveland's water plants.

One might expect that in protecting the infrastructure from terrorist attacks one would also improve the capability of the infrastructure to deal with equally destructive acts of nature, like hurricanes or tornadoes or lightning strikes on transmission lines.

Tragically, the Bush Administration is hobbled by its ideology. It doesn't believe in government owning infrastructure, let alone the federal government's assisting local and state governments in improving that infrastructure. Thus the billions of dollars spent so far have been used to improve communications between the local police force and the Pentagon -- but not for improved communications among local emergency providers. Washington has used its resources to dramatically improve our surveillance capacity, to create huge interconnected databases of suspected terrorists, to create a federalized network to monitor our airport and shipping passengers.

But the Bush Administration has been very reluctant to give money to communities to meet what Washington thinks are localized emergencies.

As Josh Filler, director of the Homeland Security Department's Office of State and Local Coordination has declared, "This is not just money for generic public safety." The practical implication of this philosophy is that there is no money for hiring new police officers or firefighters and little if any money for beefing up 911 systems.

Given the budget cutbacks around the country, Bush's strategy of distinguishing between local and national security has led to a truly bizarre situation. Whenever the likelihood of a terrorist attack goes up, the capacity of our communities to cope goes down.

Consider the cost of orange alerts. By now most of us probably ignore the current color status of Department of Homeland Security's alerts. Local emergency providers cannot. They translate into significantly increased expenditures for overtime. A March 2003 analysis by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that cities were spending an additional $70 million per week on personnel costs alone to keep up with Orange Alert security requirements.

This additional expenditure requirement comes at a time of major local budget crises. Seattle is typical. It has received $11 million in equipment and training from Washington to fight terrorism, but a city-wide budget deficit of $60 million resulted in the loss of 75 positions from the police department -- 25 officers and 50 support staff. One could roughly estimate that every time there is an Orange Alert, Seattle could lose one more member of its police department.

Former cop-turned-security-consultant John Cohen laments this state of affairs. "Until we move away from this flawed philosophy that homeland security is something adjunct (to) or separate from the day-to-day public safety or public health activities," he told the National Journal, "We're not going to truly benefit from all these millions of federal dollars."