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Unpredictability and Disaster Response

It is imperative that we look at the response to every natural disaster in the context of learning what could happen in the event of a mass casualty terrorist attack. Therefore, on the top-line, the response to the Gulf Coast hit by Hurricane Gustav earlier this week should be seen in a positive light. The response of FEMA was especially encouraging, as noted by Andy Cochran (Counterterrorism Blog). Yes, FEMA and the local emergency response orgranizations acted in advance and they acted decisively. The mandatory evacuation orders made it clear that government authorities did not want to see a repeat of the pitiful pictures in the media of people stranded on house roofs during Katrina three years ago. Happily, the preparedness by the Texas emergency management people helped to make it alot easier this time for evacuees to situate in San Antonio, and then, after the storm abated, return to their Coastal homes.

Now, in the aftermath however, there are some striking questions that still need to be addressed.

Not surprisingly, infrastructure was affected by the hurricane. Even though the majority of service was restored the next day, power outages caused by Hurricane Gustav brought down cellular and Internet service in parts of Louisiana, but the storm's impact was much milder than Katrina's.

Further way from the coast in Baton Rouge, Gustav took down a 20 transmission towers. Officials now estimate that some parts of the region could be without electricity for three weeks.

Gov. Bobby Jindal has said the projected timeline for restoring power is unacceptable. "One of the things that absolutely has to be worked out is what more could be done to harden the lines and make the distribution system more safe for future storms or intentional acts, whether it's additional redundancies or a hardening of the assets," he said Thursday.

The need for alternative sources of power are clear. The current Situation Report from the Department of Energy makes very clear the serious impact Gustav had on the energy infrastructure, with 30% of the state without electricity as of 1500 Eastern on September 5th.

The evacuation routes quickly became clogged with traffic.

Motorists reported enduring journeys of 10 hours north to Jackson along I-55, instead of the usual three; 11 hours to Meridian along I-59, instead of the usual three; and 15 hours up I-59 to Birmingham, instead of the usual six. By contrast, motorists leaving for Baton Rouge at dawn Sunday sailed the 85 miles there nearly unimpeded, passing miles of creeping northbound traffic headed for Jackson by way of I-55.

One of my relatives was in Beaumont Texas and left immediately when the evacuation orders came. In fact, because she knew that her car was low on gasoline, she left her hotel (on business) leaving most of her belongings behind. At one point when she called, she was travelling at 3 mph.

While the contraflow traffic plans have now been tested and worked following the Katrina and Rita evacuations, the question of the capacity of the road infrastructure to deal with a mass evacuation of the Coast has to be raised. Similarly, a plan of dispersed traffic flow (avoiding everyone trying to go in the same direction away from the area), warrants evaluation and possible implementation.

The mandatory evacuation orders came in an instant. Many people fled with little of their belongings and then found themselves without resources to readily return home. Whether or not it is warranted for people to complain about the lack of a government subsidy to purchase gasoline is less the issue than determining future plan for such similar future evacuations. Some people of limited means may have a point, but I cannot conceive of an easy solution since hand-outs are not the answer.

It truly has to be argued that people may have still waited too long before taking flight and moving away from the land strike. Also, people who live in hurricane prone areas simply cannot leave themselves open to elongated escapes by not having their vehicles ready to leave on a moments notice.

Why is all of this important? We need to recognize that whatever or however low the probability of a mass casualty attack is by terrorists, the possibility remains very real. And against that backdrop, there is the realization that our ability to detect the release of radiological or biological weapon is still dependent on plans and programs that are still in disarray. If and when a CBRN attacks occurs, we may not getting advanced warning, and our ability to evacuate mass population from the effected area will determine how well we can control the casualty rate.

Mother Nature is providing us with valuable learning opportunities.