Staying in the Dark
By Bob Herbert
The New York Times
Monday 18 August 2003
We never heed the warnings.
When the power failed last Thursday afternoon I was reading a report commissioned by the Council on Foreign Relations that found that even now two years after the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001 the United States remains "dangerously unprepared" to cope with another catastrophic terrorist attack.
The blackout that interrupted my reading showed once again how suddenly we can be thrown out of our daily routine and into a widespread emergency. I walked down the 10 flights from my office in the Times Building and out to Times Square, where the bewildered, disoriented throngs, frightened by thoughts of terror, were trying to get their bearings in an environment that had been transformed in an instant.
It seemed that almost everyone had a cellphone and none of them were working. That freaked out a lot of people. Cellphones have emerged as the lifelines of the 21st century, the quintessential emergency gadget. It's the one device that's supposed to work when everything else is falling apart.
There were already reports circulating (true, as it turned out) that the blackout extended all the way into Canada and as far west as Ohio. A woman asked a reporter if he thought the entire nation was under attack. The reporter said no, he thought it was just a blackout, like the ones in 1965 and 1977. But bigger, maybe.
The night would bring a reacquaintance with deep silence and flickering shadows and the comfort of listening to baseball on a battery-operated radio. But there was also the disturbing sense (nurtured in the long, dark, humid hours of the night) that much of our trust is misplaced, that in instance after instance the people in charge of crucial aspects of our society are incompetent or irresponsible, or both, and that American lives are far more at risk than they should be because of that.
Last week's enormous, cascading blackout should never have occurred. We knew the electrical grid was in sorry shape and the experiences of 1965 and 1977 were still in our collective memory. The experts told us again and again to expect a breakdown. Two years ago an official with the North American Electric Reliability Council said, "The question is not whether, but when the next major failure of the grid will occur."
We ignored the warnings, which is what we always do with warnings, and we paid a terrible price. Now we're left wondering what might happen if terrorists linked their madness to our electric power vulnerabilities.
The report I was reading when the power failed was issued less than two months ago and was titled, "Emergency Responders: Drastically Underfunded, Dangerously Unprepared."
The report acknowledged that some progress against terrorism has been made through the Department of Homeland Security and other federal, state and local institutions. But it said, "The United States has not reached a sufficient national level of emergency preparedness and remains dangerously unprepared to handle a catastrophic attack on American soil, particularly one involving chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear agents, or coordinated high-impact conventional means."
The task force that conducted the study was headed by former Senator Warren Rudman, a Republican, who, with former Senator Gary Hart, a Democrat, wrote two previous important studies that spotlighted the woeful state of our defenses against large-scale terror attacks.
Their first study was issued before the Sept. 11 catastrophe. It predicted a deadly attack, saying, "Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers."
Their second study was issued last year and it accused the White House and Congress of failing to take the extensive and costly steps necessary to defend against another catastrophic attack, which they said was almost certain to occur.
Now we have yet another warning. If an attack were to occur, the report said, the so-called first responders police and fire departments, emergency medical personnel, public works and emergency management officials are not ready to respond effectively. And one of the reasons is that we won't spend the money or invest the effort necessary to adequately train and equip them.
After the next attack we'll have another study to assess what went wrong. And we won't pay attention to that study either.
Jump to TO Features for Tuesday 19 August 2003