The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation
by Stephen Flynn
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.
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.
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.)
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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