Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, President Bush stood in New Orleans' Jackson Square, lit by television lights that the White House had specially brought in. "This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina," he promised. Now it's three years later. What lessons have we learned? Actually, there are several.
First, all homeland security is local. The earliest clue in New Orleans that things were going from bad to tragic came in a phone call from the city's Jackson Barracks to the Louisiana National Guard. An airman reported that there were puddles in the street -- then he came back a little later and said that "cars are beginning to float out of the parking lot." The levees had failed. No amount of national planning can sidestep the fact that, whether it's a hurricane or a terrorist attack, the first indication that something bad is happening is a report from someone on the front lines. That also is the searing lesson from the probationary firefighters who looked up to see a large jet flying into the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Today's homeland security debates all too often forget the basic fact that local first responders are the first line of homeland security.
Second, we haven't defined the federalism tripwire. In flooded New Orleans, hundreds of police simply left the job and the city came within an eyelash of the total collapse of civil order. In explaining the walkout, the police superintendent said that "if I put you out on the street and made you get into gun battles all day with no place to urinate and no place to defecate, I don't think you would be too happy, either." Since then, the feds have quietly debated whether they should have moved federal troops in to restore order, and a battle has quietly simmered within the Department of Homeland Security over when the feds ought to push state and local officials out of the way. We might eventually have to sort that out on the fly, in the middle of some future catastrophe, and it remains an uneasy, unanswered question.
Third, coordination is critical, but communication is disaster's early casualty. The defining element of a truly big crisis is that it swamps the ability of individual agencies and governments to respond. "Coordination" really means finding a way to call in the cavalry for help. We've learned, however, that communication is often the first thing to go in a mega-crisis, and without good communication there can be no coordination. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was marooned for two days at the Hyatt hotel with no telephone. Some progress has been made in ensuring interoperable communications, but we still have a long way to go.
Fourth, there is no "system." The New Orleans levee network was, in fact, a poorly inspected and uncoordinated collection of individual levees, pumps, locks, gates, and other structures. A failure anywhere meant big problems everywhere. This summer's Midwest floods drove home that point yet again. No one knew where all the levees along the upper Mississippi and its tributaries were, let alone who controlled them. We don't need to shift control of all these assets to Washington, but we surely need to know what the assets are, what kind of shape they're in, and who's in charge, or we will quickly run out of fingers to stick in the dike -- real and proverbial.
And finally, we have to remember to look ahead rather than behind. FEMA stumbled during Katrina because its planning was focused on September 11, and not on the many other kinds of disasters that are bound to happen periodically. After FEMA failed, the Coast Guard did far better because its officials focused on the problem, and how best to find the resources needed to solve it.
Katrina may have felt like the next September 11, but it wasn't, and it's unlikely that the next Katrina will be a mega-storm. The most important lesson is that government needs to become far better in adapting to problems instead of trying to force big problems into rigid governmental boundaries. Like Katrina's storm surge, powerful disasters will always trump a government that isn't nimble enough to make quick decisions and change course when necessary.