Michael Chertoff admits that three and a half years after Hurricane Katrina, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) he heads still falls short of protecting the American national structures from natural disasters.
In a speech last Friday at the Brookings Institution,
Chertoff said that while the DHS has made strides in protecting the
U.S. against possible terrorist attacks, much is left to be desired in
keeping bridges, highways and levees safe from hurricanes, tropical
storms and other potential Katrina-esque catastrophes.
“Regrettably, I don’t think we’ve done quite as good a job in
protecting our common good assets and common good critical
infrastructure against simple wear and tear or threats from Mother
Nature,” Chertoff said.
Reflecting upon the reason of said shortcomings, Chertoff says he
observes a familiar pattern that continues to repeat itself: “We have
failed time and again to devote the energy and the effort and the
investment to make sure that these structures can be preserved in the
face of a possible very serious natural disaster, or frankly, simply
through the ordinary degradation of any physical structure that comes
year in and year out.”
Hurricane Katrina, the storm that left most of New Orleans under water after the levees broke on the 17th street canal in 2005,
later came to embody the failure of DHS to respond to a national
emergency, and Chertoff, the face of DHS, came under heavy criticism.
Since Katrina hit, a steel barrier has been erected to contain the
water from entering the canal, and Chertoff said he recently asked
himself why this wasn’t done ten years ago. He read the BBC
investigation into the matter and discovered the Army Corps of
Engineers proposed placing the steel barrier there years ago, but the
proposal was shot down because “it was opposed by local residents who
thought it would spoil their view of the lake, and environmental groups
concerned about its effect on the ecology of the area,” Chertoff said.
The Secretary named this as the chief failure in Katrina and also the
principal challenge we face today: prioritizing political, business or
other interests above national security.
“We cannot allow ourselves to get sidetracked by the typical pushback
from economic interests or aesthetic interests or environmental
interests that seeks to stop every major project because parochial
concerns will inevitably be stepped on or overridden for the greater
good,” he said. “It’s really about putting the common good first when
it comes to the issue of our critical infrastructure.”
Chertoff says he sees the same kind of pushback from interest groups that happened in New Orleans ten years ago occur today in Sacramento.
The California city’s 100 year-old levees are badly in need of repair,
especially because the city is at high risk level for flooding and has
a track record of five major floods in the past 46 years.
The impact of a flood in Sacramento would be an “apocalyptic
catestrophe,” according to Chertoff, with “human life, human safety
[and] economic development” at stake—similar to New Orleans.
In 2006 California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency, rebuilt the levees and enacted flood-control planning with a voter-approved $4 billion bond.
However, what Chertoff is concerned with is the vicious backlash from
the local businesses and local county officials, who complain the new
flood zones and flood maps are a detriment to economic development.
Chertoff views this attitude as one of the primary reasons disasters
like Katrina occur.
“It is confronting this kind of pushback, based on peoples’ desire for
immediate economic benefits, based on peoples’ desire for immediate
gratification, that puts the population of these highly-developed areas
at great risk and raises the danger that if we were facing a levee
collapse, the consequences might be much graver than if we put into
effect those measures which prudence tells us we ought to engage in
order to reduce the risk of flooding.”
Another example Chertoff cites of business interest dominating over
security concerns is requiring gas stations to have generators in case
the power grid goes down so the effort to recover energy is not
delayed. Chertoff says he pleaded with oil companies back in 2005 to
honor this request because “more is at stake here than just the revenue
for the gas station owner or the revenue for the oil company,” but the
response has not been even-handed. Only a few states took the request
seriously, like Florida which passed a law mandating gas stations have
generators to ensure the community could recover quickly should
Although businesses may not want to comply with such efforts, Chertoff
said it is his job and the governments obligation to “see to it that
people live up to that broader responsibility,” and has enacted a
strategy within the DHS to do so.
The strategy, which Chertoff calls a “long term infrastructure
protection program,” involves the federal and state governments tiering
the risks, similar to the way DHS tiers terrorist risks. The top 500 to
1,000 “high consequence, high risk” assets are identified as top
priority, then the maintenance strategy kicks in to reduce
The key to making this work, Chertoff says, is the “discipline to
withstand some very powerful and very deeply-committed interests who
will be interested in developing in those areas, or who will have other
uses for the money that we’ll spend on not particularly glamorous
things, like bridge repair, or levee repair.”
Chertoff claims patience is the other requirement to implement such a
strategy based on longevity. “It’s not going to be done in a week, or a
month, or a year, it’s not going to be done during the period of time
that we begin the project with enthusiasm, it’s going to require the
commitment to follow through over a period of five years, ten years, 20
years; but if we don’t do it, we’re going to get back to that old game
of musical chairs, where we simply hope that the music doesn’t stop
while we’re in office, and that poor, unlucky guy who is in office when
the music stops is going to find himself without a chair and falling to
This past week has been an “acid test” for the new strategy given the
busy hurricane season, and Chertoff says it is proof the system is
working. In preparation for Hurricane Gustav, DHS worked together with
the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Coast Guard, and Customs and Border Protection to coordinate an evacuation. He calls the evacuation in the Gulf Coast last week imperfect but successful nonetheless.
Chertoff assessed: “The result of that preparation wasn’t a perfect
evacuation, but it was something that demonstrated real progress and
made life safer for the people in the Gulf Coast region. . .if the test
of success is what happens in the real world, I think that we have made
a good deal of progress.”