Leaving aside the political posturing and the finger-pointing, how did the US nation mis-handle Katrina so badly? After spending tens of billions of dollars on homeland security (hundreds of billions, if you include the war in Iraq) in the four years after 9/11, what did they do wrong? Why were there so many failures at the local, state and federal levels?
These are reasonable questions. Katrina was a natural disaster and not a terrorist attack, but that only matters before the event. Large-scale terrorist attacks and natural disasters differ in cause, but they are very similar in aftermath. And one can easily imagine a Katrina-like aftermath to a terrorist attack, especially one involving nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.
Improving our disaster response was discussed in the months after 9/11. We were going to give money to local governments to fund first responders. We established the Department of Homeland Security to streamline the chains of command and facilitate efficient and effective response.
The problem is that we all got caught up in 'movie-plot threats', specific attack scenarios that capture the imagination and then the dollars. Whether it is terrorists with box cutters or bombs in their shoes, we fear what we can imagine. We are searching backpacks in the subways of New York, because this year's movie plot is based on a terrorist bombing in the London subways.
Funding security based on movie plots looks good on television, and gets people re-elected. But there are millions of possible scenarios, and we are going to guess wrong. The billions spent defending airlines are wasted if the terrorists bomb crowded shopping malls instead.
The US needs to spend its homeland security dollars on two things: intelligence-gathering and emergency response. These two things will help us regardless of what the terrorists are plotting, and the second helps both against terrorist attacks and national disasters.
Katrina demonstrated that we have not invested enough in emergency response. New Orleans police officers could not talk with each other after power outages shut down their primary communications system - and there was no backup. The Department of Homeland Security, which was established in order to centralise federal response in a situation like this, could not figure out who was in charge or what to do, and actively obstructed aid by others. FEMA did no better, and thousands died while turf battles were being fought.
The US government's ineptitude in the aftermath of Katrina demonstrates how little we are getting for all our security spending. It is unconscionable that we are wasting our money fingerprinting foreigners, profiling airline passengers, and invading foreign countries while emergency response at home goes underfunded.
Money spent on emergency response makes us safer, regardless of what the next disaster is, whether terrorist-made or natural.
This includes good communications on the ground, good coordination up the command chain, and resources - people and supplies - that can be quickly deployed wherever they are needed.
Similarly, money spent on intelligence-gathering makes us safer, regardless of what the next disaster is. Against terrorism, that includes the NSA and the CIA. Against natural disasters, that includes the National Weather Service and the National Earthquake Information Center.
Katrina deftly illustrated homeland security's biggest challenge: guessing correctly. The solution is to fund security that does not rely on guessing. Defending against movie plots does not make us appreciably safer. Emergency response does. It lessens the damage and suffering caused by disasters, whether man-made, like 9/11, or nature-made, like Katrina.
Bruce Schneier is the founder and CTO of Counterpane Internet Security, Inc. He can be contacted at email@example.com. To subscribe to a free monthly newsletter providing summaries, analyses, insights and commentaries on security: computer and otherwise, visit http://www.schneier.com/crypto-gram.html
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