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
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
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.
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