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Not exactly a jeremiad, although recounting a lamentable story of failure and lack of accountability, this analysis offers, rather, a thoughtful, in-depth take on how a better effort may be made to deal with a terrorist calamity. Especially insightful is the author’s perception of the lessons learned long ago, during the Second World War.– Ed.

Hurricane Katrina and Terrorism

by Stephen Gale

“Four years after the single most disastrous attack on the U.S. ever, the ongoing accountability failures with respect to potential terrorist attacks are unfathomable.”

On August 30, 2005, the day after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, Ted Koppel had these closing thoughts for that evening’s ABC Nightline:

“We [Americans] don’t like anticipating disasters. It suggests pessimism, and America is largely a nation of optimists. But when you look at the damage inflicted by an accidental storm, you have to think about the sheer havoc that an intentional terrorist attack may produce one of these days.”

Unfortunately, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina may be the best indicator of what the U.S. can expect from the next terrorist attacks, and its effects just a shadow of what could result from further attacks such as those of 9-11. We “optimistic Americans” must come to terms with the very real prospect that devastating, highly disruptive terrorist attacks are quite likely to be in our future and that prevention and disaster mitigation planning cannot be put off any longer. The alternative is written in the Gulf Coast death statistics, on the faces of those who survived Katrina, and in the disruptions to a national economy that depends on tightly integrated supply chains.

Hurricane Katrina was unquestionably the result of nature’s forces. No persons, least of all terrorists, are capable of harnessing this power of nature and aiming it with destructive intent. Using hurricanes as a WMD remains beyond the realm of feasibility. This doesn’t mean, however, that other forces of nature with the potential for equally destructive and disruptive consequences—forces such as nuclear and biological attacks—have not been put in harness and are not being readied for directed attacks at the U.S.

Hurricane specialists such as Ivor van Heerden have worked hard over the years to alert city, state, and federal officials to the dangers of unpreparedness, just as centers such as FPRI’s Center on Terrorism, Counterterrorism, and Homeland Security have repeatedly highlighted the need for planning and advance preparation.[1] Proposed solutions are often dismissed as “Jeremiah-ish, “too costly,” or “in violation of constitutional principles.” Perhaps they are. But note that the biblical Jeremiah was, in fact, correct in his warnings. As to cost, we simply have no idea whether expenses for security are warranted, because we have yet to do the hard work associated with identifying the nationally critical targets and the cost of securing them. And as for constitutional principles, until we determine what works and what doesn’t, we don’t even know what (if any) legal issues might be involved.

If Katrina was a random act of nature, the chaos in its wake was no accident. Prior to Katrina, other Category 3 or higher hurricanes had made landfall on the Gulf Coast, and many of the nation’s premier hurricane research groups had already worked out simulations of the consequences. The impact of these hurricanes had been carefully evaluated, and the predictions of what would happen in New Orleans were quite accurate. Missing was the recognition that, since such a hurricane would eventually cross New Orleans, planning for survival and recovery was an essential responsibility of both the public and private sectors. Even more significantly, there was no recognition that securing specific critical functions in New Orleans—energy supplies and shipping—was, in fact, the concern of the entire nation.

As destructive as Katrina and the subsequent flooding was, as an act of nature it was not an event executed by a group intent on disrupting the U.S. economy and society. Terrorist acts, in contrast, are volitional and, by understanding the terrorists’ goals, training, and capabilities, the nation can work to prevent such acts or, at a minimum, make sure that the society and the economy can recover quickly.

Using the failures in hurricane preparation as a model, then, what steps should the U.S. now be taking to ensure that we are not caught flat-footed or, if we are attacked, that the nation is prepared to respond in a manner that does not result in the chaos of New Orleans?

Each of the failures in planning for Katrina identified below has a direct parallel in planning for terrorist attacks. Some of the parallels are clear and sharp; others take a bit of imagination. At this point, we can hope that steps are being taken to improve the hurricane emergency response programs on the Gulf Coast and elsewhere. With respect to potential terrorist attacks, however, the administration is just beginning to take the steps needed for prevention and relief. Its attempt to recreate a new version of the Cold War’s “containment policy” to protect the U.S. and its interests has had some positive effects, but no one who is familiar with the objectives and capabilities of the current wave of Islamist terrorists believes that containment alone will be sufficient to protect the U.S.

Although the conditions that create hurricanes and their impacts are much better understood than those associated with terrorist actions, there was a general failure to take seriously the prospect that a Category 4 (or even 5) hurricane would actually strike the American city most vulnerable to it: New Orleans. Even in the aftermath, debate continues about who is responsible for the costs involved in preparing for these hurricanes and for rescue and reconstruction efforts.[2] Worse still, the key issue—should state and federal legislation permit large-scale population growth in such areas—appears to have been on the back burner.

After the publication of the 9-11 Commission Report last year, it seemed as if Americans might finally be ready to appreciate the importance of thinking in terms of the kinds of attack scenarios that could parallel the effects of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes. The Commission spoke of “a failure of imagination,” and who could miss the point? According to the Commission, the events of 9-11 happened because the various agencies responsible for the safety and security of the nation simply lacked the imagination to appreciate how terrorists could fashion weapons out of everyday objects and functions—using airplanes as cruise missiles—with the goal of disrupting America’s society, economy, and government.

Regrettably, rather than amplifying and outlining means for dealing with the “failure of imagination,” the Commission simply left the matter at identifying those individuals and agencies whose imaginations had failed us prior to 9-11. And while much of what the Commission had to say about the sources of failure were true, in the end “J’accuse!” is not an answer to the problem of the U.S.’s failure of imagination.

Lists of signature targets and specialized tactics such as WMD is not sufficient to characterize the types of attacks that terrorists can use to destroy major elements of the U.S. The 9-11 attacks were imaginative: the planning took into account the availability of flights on specific routes, the limited training required to master in-flight approaches to major buildings, and the then common airline rule to the effect that both the crew and passengers should cooperate with hijackers rather than risk lives. By all reports, the cost of the attack was unbelievably low: roughly $500,000. For the U.S. to provide for the safety and security of America and Americans in the future, it is imagination—imagining a full range of attack scenarios—that is critical.

Clearly not all targets are equally likely, and we cannot protect everything all the time. This approach would mean only that we could protect nothing. Rather, the answer comes packaged as a method that has long been used in military analysis: Red Team-Blue Team exercises in which the Red Team is responsible for thinking like the enemy and the Blue Team plays the part of the security force.[3]

It is possible that somewhere in the federal government’s massive defense bureaucracy or at one or more contractor sites there are Red Team-Blue Team exercises now being conducted. But if so, their lack of direct impact on the policies and programs now being employed to support the nation’s counterterrorism and homeland security efforts is probably a good indicator that they are so removed from the current challenges as to be irrelevant.

Hurricane scenarios depend primarily on estimating the force of the system and the topographic and manmade features in the path of the hurricane. Terrorism scenarios, in contrast, have considerably more variability and must, therefore, be analyzed by using something on the order of complex Red Team-Blue Team exercises. Simple or complex, however, scenario failures lead to catastrophes such as 9-11 and the aftermath of Katrina; avoiding scenario failures requires only commitment to concerted, thorough risk assessment and management.

Does the cost of preparing for Category 4 and 5 hurricanes outweigh the benefits? At least according to several recent commentators, it may be that the costs of the engineering feats that might have prevented or mitigated the impacts of Katrina just aren’t worth it. Given the enormous loss and devastation of lives, raising this point may seem cavalier. But it is fair to ask just who is responsible for making the investment decisions for providing the safety and security for the nation’s cities, the people, and the businesses that are needed for the U.S. to function as integral parts of the world economy. Even now, a week after Katrina crossed New Orleans, there is still a clear failure of accountability.[4]

As with marriages, the test of the strength of societies is best appreciated in times of crisis. A major cause of societal failure is the inability to recognize that, in crises, it is the survival and, ultimately, the strength of the unit that is at stake. Accountability, in this case, is measured in the ability of an organization—the society, the economy, the culture—to survive and continue to function.

With all of the local, state, and federal agencies at work in New Orleans, it is easy to see how accountability failures could occur. At this point, however, four years after the single most disastrous attack on the U.S. ever, the ongoing accountability failures with respect to potential terrorist attacks are unfathomable. The federal government has, for example, made it clear that, although DHS is responsible for guidance and technology support, the design and implementation of homeland security programs are to be managed at the state and local level. At the state and local levels, however, the form of guidance provided by DHS is anything but transparent and there is little support for setting common, detailed, security standards or transferring technologies in operational form. To make matters worse, DHS has now turned to state and local governments for guidance on what they believe they need, without providing indicators of which security measures work and which don’t.

The result of the accountability failures on the terrorism front has been much the same sort of confusion and chaos as witnessed in New Orleans—with the added difficulty that the problem is, by now, part of the homeland security organizational map. Unquestionably, state and local governments must play critical roles in the implementation of homeland security measures. For that matter, so too must private sector organizations, since they, not governments, are responsible for the safety, security, and continued operation of most of the nation’s economy. What is missing, however, is a sense that there is someone, some group, in charge of making sure that the unit—the society, the economy, the American way of life—actually survives and remains healthy in the face of potential terrorist actions. But as with the immediate aftermath of Katrina, it is not clear that there is, in fact, a direct line of responsibility and that accountability failures will not compound an already confused situation.

Of all the potential resolutions to the accountability failure, probably the simplest and easiest is to look to the central government. As in World War II and the other major crises faced by the U.S., fragmented efforts can never achieve victory or survival. Even before the onset of the U.S.’s involvement in World War II, Congress had already enacted concrete legislation establishing centralized authority over critical materiel, production, transportation, and communications. And although the nation’s intelligence arms were still primitive and fragmented, the mission-critical elements—code-breaking operations such as Ultra—were organized to provide coordinated information from a central clearinghouse.

Organizational centralization and coordination is certainly not a surefire answer to all risk assessment and management problems. Among other things, it opens a real possibility that a single individual or small group can penetrate the organization and disrupt it from within. However, it does have one unquestioned advantage: accountability and, with it, the ability to assess the effectiveness of plans, programs, and operations on an ongoing basis, rather than in retrospect.

Beyond the absence of meaningful safety and security standards for people and businesses in areas subject to hurricanes, and even beyond the matter of clear lines of accountability for enforcing those standards, the events in New Orleans demonstrate a mammoth failure of communications.

Before the storm, warnings, not orders, were issued. Emergency units are still operating on different, incompatible communications frequencies. With a relatively clear understanding of what would happen to New Orleans in the direct path of a Category 4 hurricane, communications were ambiguous, late, and equivocal.

Modern communications technologies assuredly were not the source of the problem. Between television, telephones, the Internet, and instant messaging, not to mention old-fashioned radio, information could easily have been spread throughout the region and rescue operations coordinated. But even official channels of communications completely failed to make clear that a major disaster was about to occur, that resources could not be made available to rescue those who chose to ignore the warnings, and that evacuation and relocation operations were being implemented for those who wanted to leave but needed assistance.

The communications failures that contributed to the confusion and chaos in the aftermath of Katrina pale by comparison with the communications failures associated with the current state of counterterrorism and homeland security operations. At this point, it might even be far simpler to just start anew with a clean-slate communications model than to try to revamp the current system.

Starting from the top, communications about just what kind of threat the U.S. faces from terrorist attacks has been (at best) chaotic and idiosyncratic and (at worst) misleading. The threat of Islamist terrorism is real. Its intention is to defeat the U.S. through the use of terrorist attacks that disrupt the U.S. economy and society, and there is scant hope that a negotiated solution would work. It is just as clear that U.S. intelligence operations will, in all likelihood, continue to be unsuccessful at discovering plans or interrupting operations. And, even if information on terrorist plans were somehow available, it is not clear that the necessary coordination of communications among the relevant agencies is in place that will allow the U.S. to respond in a timely fashion.[5]

Federal, state, and local agencies remain uncoordinated even where there is clear authorization for reform. Political pressures have prevented the implementation of high-priority communications restructuring. The private sector, the key player in any domestic terrorism preparedness program, has had minimal involvement in establishing standards and guidelines. Even the basic communications systems for law enforcement and emergency response units are fragmented and uncoordinated.

The U.S. has probably already initiated whatever reforms in intelligence communications are feasible with regard to outside threats, though it remains a question whether they will work in practice. On the domestic side, however, there is at least one relatively simple measure that could markedly improve communications and, if it is successful, stimulate additional improvements: mandating common communications equipment, frequencies, and procedures for all law enforcement agencies, emergency response workers, and healthcare personnel. And, fortunately, the federally owned and operated Iridium System is available and can easily support piggy-backed state, local, and private users at very low cost.

While in some sense this is a symbolic recommendation (since the only real test would occur after a successful attack), it would be an important symbol of the nation’s commitment to both preventing attacks and mounting a unified national response should it be necessary. And since an excellent system is available and ready to go, it is hard to imagine a better opportunity to take at least one concrete step aimed at jump-starting improved communications for emergency prevention and response.

As has been widely noted, some of the materiel and trained personnel needed to respond to Katrina had been relocated to the Afghanistan and Iraq. But since these gaps have existed for more than two years, it is also difficult to imagine that someone in the city or state or even in the local FEMA office did not notice the deficiencies and request replacements. After all, noticing gaps in existing emergency relief plans would hardly seem to be much of a challenge in an age where computer records are the norm.

Emergency response procedures had, of course, been developed prior to Katrina’s arrival but, in the aftermath, it appears that many of the plans could not be implemented simply because key trained personnel slots were, in fact, vacant and the necessary materiel had not been stockpiled and pre-located. Bravery and resourcefulness notwithstanding, emergency workers depend principally on training, coordinated teamwork, and the proximate availability of the tools and materials to do their jobs.

Regrettably, there are even worse problems with respect to the personnel and materiel available for counterterrorism and homeland security. Whenever DHS increases the Threat Alert status, for example, states and municipalities have generally responded by “increasing the vigilance” of local law enforcement units. Buses and trains were bombed in Europe and, in the U.S., the police were asked to carefully scrutinize passengers at Amtrak stations and other major transportation facilities. This sounds reasonable until we realize that the police probably have neither the trained personnel to determine just who are the likely suspects nor the “materiel” (legal directives) to do the kind of searches that might actually produce results. Moreover, materiel in the form of the types of technical equipment that might substitute for the absence of training and search authority—even nuclear, chemical, and biological detectors—are not generally available to local law enforcement agencies, let alone in the numbers required.

The personnel and equipment needed for hurricane detection and communications are available on a national basis. At least in theory, the basic materiel (instrumentation and communications) and personnel are provided through the weather satellite systems and agencies responsible for weather prediction. There are even a variety of federal, state, and local agencies that have been specifically trained to provide hurricane disaster response. With respect to potential terrorist attacks, the situation is almost the reverse. Domestic detection is localized and idiosyncratic. International detection— the intelligence needed to identify attacks before they occur—has been a conspicuous disaster. Communications, such as they are, range from the color-coded DHS Threat Alert system to independent state-coordinating agencies to even more independent local law enforcement and emergency response units. Even such basic practices as mandating common radio frequencies for local, state, and national risk management and healthcare provision have yet to be initiated. Even today, four years after 9-11, the list of materiel and personnel failures with respect to terrorism risk assessment and management is almost endless, and everyone from DHS Secretary Chertoff on down knows it.[6] Less clear is just what can be done to solve the problem in time either to prevent the next attack or at least to ensure that the consequences are minimized. What seemed to be simple, workable solutions several years ago (such as the creation of DHS) have not proven to be major successes, and even the administration’s attempt at attack prevention through international operations has been demonstrably optimistic.

Perhaps the one solution left at this point to the nation’s personnel and materiel problems is, again, one drawn from the past: the kind of commitment from the American people — the society and the economy — that is the source of America’s pride in the “greatest generation.” Materiel and personnel shortages were the rule throughout World War II, both at home and in the European and Pacific theaters. In some cases, the shortages were temporary but, for the most part, they continued throughout the war. It was the nation’s commitment to conserve, to use substitutes, to buy war bonds, and to participate in the war production system, not simply U.S., military operations, that eventually produced a successful end to the war and, at this point, a similar national commitment would hopefully produce similar results with respect to the threat from terrorist attacks.

All four specific failures described above were ultimately the result of a larger, more overarching systemic flaw. Hurricanes and terrorism are vastly different but they should be treated primarily as a risk assessment and management problem. In the case of Katrina, the risk assessment may have been made but the management was not sufficiently seized with the consequences to act in timely fashion. What was missing in New Orleans was not the scenario but the commitment to act in time to minimize the consequences. Moreover, pervasive problems such as potentially reduced energy availability and transport disruptions need to be addressed. Where these costs are related to hurricanes, the long-term effects can be overcome by reorganizing federal relief programs.

The same, however, cannot be said of the terrorism threat. Here both the risk assessment and the management problem combine to leave us dangerously vulnerable. Let us set aside the familiar arguments over whether terrorism is to be fought primarily as a military campaign or a law enforcement problem or a social pathology. The state, local, and private custodians of America’s vital infrastructure simply have no agreed way of deciding on the threats they face or the actions they must take, and the federal government thus far has not helped them do it.

Thus Katrina offers a broad wake-up call. The systemic failures on the management side revealed by the hurricane problem are compounded by lack of assessment capability on the terrorist problem. A solution may lay at hand in what we have suggested elsewhere: the concept of a “security impact statement” that mandates such assessments on the state, local, and private levels; sets standards; sorts out the federal “commons” responsibility and unties the legal and insurance knots impeding action.[7] Others may have better ideas. But the worst idea is to await another act of terrorism, a man-made Katrina, which is surely what our enemies intend.

[1] See, e.g., S. Gale and G. Montanaro, “The Question of Bioterrorism Preparedness,” FPRI E-Note, 2005; L.A. Husick and S. Gale, “Planning a Sea-Borne Terrorist Attack,” FPRI E-Note, 2005; Ivor L. van Heerden, “Coastal Land Loss: Hurricanes and New Orleans,” and “New Orleans Hurricane Impact Study Area,” both at

[2] See “Cost of Survival,” Times-Picayune, Sept. 2, 2005.

[3] The traditional examples, games such as chess and go, were developed as a means for military leaders to learn about the procedures of offense and defense.

[4] Criticisms about changes in FEMA’s focus under the DHS are particularly absurd. The question isn’t whether FEMA should emphasize recovery from natural disasters, but whether FEMA is prepared to deal with all types of disasters, natural or manmade.

[5] At this point, the changes in intelligence operations that were recommended by the 9-11 Commission are just getting started. It is still not clear how effective they will be in practice.

[6] See Secretary Chertoff’s remarks on the DHS Second Stage Review.

[7] “From MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) to MUD (Multiple Unconstrained Disruption): Dealing with the New Terrorism,” by Stephen Gale and Lawrence Husick, FPRI Wire, February 2003.

Republished by permission from Foreign Policy Research In-stitute E-Notes. FPRI, 1528 Walnut Street, Suite 610, Phila-delphia, PA 19102-3684, on the Internet at


Stephen Gale is a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and co-chair of its Center on Terrorism, Counterterrorism, and Homeland Security. He received his Ph.D. in geography from the University of Michigan.


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