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ICG Risk Blog - [ Katrina as an "incident of national significance" puts the lie to DHS scenario planning for terrorist event preparation ]

Katrina as an "incident of national significance" puts the lie to DHS scenario planning for terrorist event preparation


The president's Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD)-5 directed the development of a new National Response Plan (NRP) to "align Federal coordination structures, capabilities, and resources into a unified, all-discipline, and all-hazards approach to domestic incident management." One wonders where that plan was when Katrina struck New Orleans and within a day had caused the Doomsday Scenario that flooded the city, paralyzing the break in bulk point for crops descending the Mississippi and the hub of pipelines feeding gas and oil northward. Yes, it was invoked this week by DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, but wonders what took so long given that the city's levees:

aren't intended to protect from a Category 4 or 5 hurricane (a 5 has winds greater than 155 mph and storm surges above 18 feet), and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is at least a decade away from upgrading to that level of protection. The corps says the current levee system doesn't provide full protection from even Category 3 storms, which could be the scariest scenario of all. "If a Category 5 storm enters the Gulf, I don't think we'll have to encourage people to leave--it'll be an easy sell," says New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin. Category 3 or 4 storms, though, "are more dangerous . . . the community says, 'We might ride this out.'"

Two of the greatest asymmetric attack prizes in the US are the ports of Houston (as a petrochemical trove waiting to be ignited) and New Orleans (as the center of navigation of materials moving up and down the Mississippi River which Friedman describes as the point where "bulk commodities of agriculture go out to the world and the bulk commodities of industrialism come in"). While the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port that services supertankers in the Gulf of Mexico is operational and Port Fourchon that serves energy extraction operations in the Gulf can be recovered, the manpower and supporting infrastructure that mans so much of the bulk goods and energy extraction and transport has been disabled and dispersed.

One wonders where was the federal government once it became clear that on D-Day +1 the levees were compromised and the city was to be flooded. The perils of the loss of New Orleans have been known for some time in many quarters in state, federal and scientific literature.

I am habitually critical of large federal scenario-based exercises, especially those in homeland defense against terrorism as they:

  • Confuse defining consequences with detection, prevention and interdiction
  • Exhibit difficulties as they grow in scope, complexity and political visibility

Politically mandated scenarios tend to mirror the exercises of the commercial power industry in which overly-broad scenarios too often see their operating parameters constrained to maximize the chances of success ("rigged" has appeared in private correspondence) with results "adjusted" to achieve success. Deprived of a systematic threat analysis and response this truncated process never allows the system's flaws to be fully identified and so lulls the defender into a state of undeserved comfort. As we like to say, an asymmetric attacker will not be as kind. Neither was Katrina.

Our typical federal scenarios do not have senators verbally upbraided for their obtuseness as CNN's Anderson Cooper did to Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu in asking her, "Does the federal government bear responsibility for what is happening now? Should they apologize for what is happening now?" After Landrieu had offered the obligatory gruel of the seriousness of the situation, issued thanks to former presidents "for their strong statements of support and comfort", to "all the leaders that are coming [to] our help and rescue"' to the "military assets that are being brought to bear", and Congress for passing a "$10 billion supplemental bill tonight to keep FEMA and the Red Cross up and operating"' Cooper cut her off at the knees (you should really watch the video) with this comment:

Excuse me, Senator, I'm sorry for interrupting. I haven't heard that, because, for the last four days, I've been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi. And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated.

And when they hear politicians slap -- you know, thanking one another, it just, you know, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now, because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours. And there's not enough facilities to take her up.

Do you get the anger that is out here?

Our typical federal scenarios do not have heads of FEMA dismembered for their ineptitude as Nightline's Ted Koppel did to Michael Brown (video) posing questions such as:

Koppel: I've heard you say during the course of a number of interviews that you found out about the convention center today. Don't you guys watch television? Don't you guys listen to the radio? Our reporters have been reporting on it for more than just today.

Koppel: Here we are essentially FIVE DAYS after the storm hit and you're talking about what's going to happen in the next couple of days.... You didn't make preparations for what was going to happen in the event that [a category four storm hit]. Why didn't you?

Our typical federal scenarios do not have a Secretary of Department of Homeland Security grilled relentlessly as Robert Siegel did to Michael Chertoff. Chertoff is an accomplished individual but I had difficulty in accepting his premise that Katrina was a "double catastrophe" of hurricane followed by flood. With all due respect, a major hurricane against New Orleans IS a flood, i.e., a single catastrophe that would form the core of recovery of the city and the surrounding region.

Our scenario planning would be the better if the above bits or realism were inserted and the interviewees evaluated on the outcomes.

I consider the failure to respond to the debacle at New Orleans with other 'federal realism' scenarios that exhibit adjusted conditions to encourage success yet repeatedly reinforce the failure of command and coordination, the overwhelming of hospitals and first responders, and the gulf in both inter- and intra-agency coordination:

  • The 1994 "Mirage Gold" exercise played out a scenario in which a fictitious militia, Patriots for National Unity, threatened to explode a nuclear bomb in New Orleans. While the test's organizers claimed that the bomb was found and defused, a later report by Rear Admiral Charles J. Beers Jr., then Department of Energy's (DOE) Deputy Assistant Secretary for Military Applications and Stockpile Support (DASMASS), found the exercise "conducted in a manner to 'stack the deck' in favor of unrealistic success," e.g., the game's players were "inappropriately leaked" information about the bomb's location and technical features. The reality was that the New Orleans was lost. (A private refrain among Counterterrorism (CT) practitioners is that is difficult to gain a realistic assessment in any politically mandated or politically important exercise as those who conduct the exercise will not fail. After Action Reports (AARs), if performed, can also suffer in such circumstances.)
  • Congress had since mandated exercises "designed to strengthen the nation's capacity to prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from large-scale terrorist attacks involving weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)." The first was the 2000 ''Operation Topoff,'' (for "Top Officials" and now called TOPOFF 2000) simulating three simultaneous terrorist strikes: chemical weapons in Portsmouth, New Hampshire., biological weapons in Denver, Colorado, and a dirty bomb in Washington, D.C. As with Mirage Gold, TOPOFF 2000 was an extremely complex scenario set up in a way to maximize the chances of success, e.g., prior to a supposedly `no-notice' exercise, the FBI leased 11 T-1 phone lines and installed them in an empty warehouse planned for use as a command post.
  • The 2003 TOPOFF 2 involved a fictional terrorist group, GLODO, carrying out a simultaneous attack again Chicago using pneumonic plague and Seattle using a radiological bomb. (GLODO had clandestine bioweapons labs in each city.) The difficulty with this exercise, and those who planned it, is that whoever GLODO is modeled on, it is not al Qaeda.
  • The 2005 TOPOFF 3 involved interruption and possible compromise of planned terrorist attacks in the New York and Boston metropolitan areas, causing the terrorists to accelerate their schedule; Simultaneously the vehicle-based improvised explosive device (VBIED) chemical weapon containing mustard gas meant for Boston is executed in New London, Connecticut, while the vehicle-based biological agent dispersal device employing pneumonic plague meant for New York is executed in the Union and Middlesex Counties of New Jersey.

Each TOPOFF looked for command and coordination issues. ICG's research into the series showed a predominance to repeat prior results, i.e., what we learn in each city of each TOPOFF event is that the diseases are fearsome, hospitals and first responders are overwhelmed, interagency and intra-agency coordination is pummeled while communications in the form of multiple control centers, numerous liaisons, and increasing numbers of response teams merely complicate the emergency response effort.

If we actually learned these lessons, how could we let Katrina get so far ahead of us?

Part 2

Convoy Bearing Food, Water and Weapons Arrives in New Orleans
New York Times
September 2, 2005

Special Edition: Hurricane Katrina
Aired September 1, 2005 - 19:00 ET

U.S. Aid Effort Criticized in New Orleans
by Robert Siegel
Sept 1, 2005

Extraordinary Problems, Difficult Solutions
By Guy Gugliotta and Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post
September 1, 2005

Newspaper That Had Warned Of Disaster Lives Own Prophecy
August 31, 2005

Big Blow in the Big Easy
By Dan Gilgoff
U.S. News And World Report
July 18, 2005

National Response Plan
Department of Homeland Security
December 2004

Analysis Planning for a Domestic Weapon-of-Mass-Destruction Exercise
Brian McCue with Christine A. Hughes, Kathleen M. Ward
The CNA Corporation
Alexandria, Virginia
(IPR) 10856/May 2003

Special Report: Washing Away
Part 1 - In Harm's Way
Part 2 - The Big One
Part 3 - Exposure's Cost
Part 4 - Tempting Fate
Part 5 - Cost of Survival

For those wishing more fun with scenarios:

Bioterrorism Drill TOPOFF 2 -- Failing to think like al Qaeda & relearning old lessons
[ 3/18/2004]
Worldwide maritime interception, search, and destroy
[ 4/9/2004]
'Dirty Bomb' worries continue
[ 3/22/2004]
The danger of confusing terrorist interdiction with the consequences of terrorist action
[ 7/6/2005]

Gordon Housworth

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