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Friday, March 9th, 2007
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The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation

by Stephen Flynn

Open Target

A review by John McQuaid

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina -- two distinct, epochal disasters in the space of four years -- shook America's swaggering, historical sense of invulnerability. Each also exposed alarming weaknesses in the elaborate systems designed to protect us, including airline security, intelligence-gathering and flood defenses. It was logical to expect that political leaders from President Bush on down would make fortifying America against future disasters job one. Unaccountably, they didn't. The Department of Homeland Security, with its erratic terror alerts and its habit of gracing small Midwestern cities with terror-fighting grants ahead of New York and Washington, is not yet a functional federal agency. And though both politicians and the public seem aware of the nation's vulnerabilities, our levees are still weak, and our ports and chemical plants are still exposed to the opportunistic terrorist. What gives?

In his thoughtful new The Edge of Disaster, Stephen Flynn wrestles with this question. Flynn brings considerable experience to the issue, from a stint as a Coast Guard officer to his current perch at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he studies homeland security issues. His argument is straightforward and sensible: We need to build "resiliency" into the systems that make modern American life possible -- transportation, communications, trade, basic infrastructure and government agencies. Our leaders lecture us that future disasters are inevitable, and they're right. So we'd better start figuring out how to take a punch. By intelligently marshaling our resources before catastrophes occur, we can cushion almost any blow.

Flynn lays out some truly terrifying -- and believable -- scenarios: A truck-bomb attack on a Philadelphia oil refinery spawns an acid cloud that kills thousands; troubled levees along California's Sacramento River collapse, flooding out millions of residents. He also prescribes policy fixes, including a national project to upgrade aging infrastructure and the interesting idea of coordinating federal disaster response through the Coast Guard -- the only agency, he writes, that performed well in Katrina's aftermath.

Flynn points out the foolishness of our current course: "It is illogical to invest so much in confronting the terrorist threat beyond our shores while being so parsimonious when it comes to protecting ourselves from acts of terror or catastrophic events here at home."

Indeed. But why is America so cavalier about girding itself for disasters? Flynn circles around that question without quite nailing it. (And it's the nub of the issue, since the answer will also tell us how likely his good ideas are to be implemented.) Is it human nature? The national character? Or is it the present political moment, with a president focused on a debilitating war abroad, not on scanning shipping containers? If the last is the right answer, the next president can change things. Flynn doesn't come out and say so, but that hope is implicit in the book's appearance at the start of a presidential campaign. (Unfortunately, The Edge of Disaster's dry, prescriptive prose sometimes reads like a candidate's white paper.)

This book is strongest on Flynn's specialties, shipping and transportation, and he concisely explains why America's ports remain so vulnerable to attack. Practically speaking, the businesses that run and use U.S. ports are responsible for security, but these firms get little guidance or money from the federal agencies that are nominally in charge of the ports. Flynn quotes shipping executives eager to spring for new security systems, then lists the formidable roadblocks in their way -- including the shipping industry's own lobbyists, who fight any government-mandated expenses that would hit their clients in the bottom line. Flynn blames "Washington's slavish adherence to free-market and small-government orthodoxy," an analysis that doesn't quite do justice to the nexus of special interests and politics blocking reforms -- something that will remain an obstacle no matter who is president.

John McQuaid is the co-author of Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms and a Katrina Media Fellow at the Open Society Institute.

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