It's the Environment, Stupid.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Cities at risk

Yesterday morning I attended an event at The New School called Urban Conversations - Cities at Risk. The morning conversation was broadcast live as part of The Brian Lehrer show on WNYC, New York Public Radio.

The conversation was heavy on talk about government response in wake of a disaster, (specifically 9/11 and New Orleans/Katrina). The guests spoke about issues surrounding the roles of FEMA and the newly formed Homeland Security Department, including intelligence and funding for preparedness - which was appropriate given their expertise: Bob Kerrey, president of The New School, former senator (D-NE), and former 9/11 Commission member; Michael Brown, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, James Lee Witt, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Clark Kent Ervin, former inspector general of the United States Department of Homeland Security, director of the Aspen Institute Homeland Security Initiative, and author of the forthcoming book Open Target; Martin O'Malley, Mayor of Baltimore (D).

One of the main problems it seemed was funding. How do you decide what kind of emergency preparedness to fund (and where) when potential terrorist attacks or natural disasters are simply impossible to predict? While hindsight can always point to clear indicators as to what should have been funded (as Kerrey pointed out with the memo disregarded by GW that explicitly stated there was a threat of attack on U.S. in 2001; and the cautions that the levees needed fixing in New Orleans), how do you prioritize the unknown?

O'Malley's response to prioritizing was that while we cannot protect every square inch of the United States, we can start with the economic and financial hubs of New York, Washington, Chicago and L.A. He also followed that up by stressing the importance of public safety in all communities - because if a major city is devastated, nearby communities are likely to come to the rescue. But even after the priorities are set (if they can be agreed upon) there remains another funding question: what is the money specificially going toward? Brown's critique is that there is no clear national plan in this respect.

But funding issues aside there seemed to me a larger problem. While both natural disaster response and terrorist threats seemed to be within the realm of FEMA and the Homeland Security Dept., there is little talk of the connection between natural disaster and security threat.

Natural disasters have in the past, and will in the future weaken infrastrucutres, especially in cities. Weak infrastructures are extremely vulnerable points that lend themselves to failure if not adequately maintained, and can be heightened security risks in this sense.

If the current U.S. administration wants to keep playing the fear card to their advantage, they really should position climate change as a homeland security risk. Positioned as such, natural disaster preparedness and prevention would get just as much play as the 'war on terror'. With a 'war on climate change' it would be in the public's top of mind and at the head of every newscast. Would this make us safer? Maybe not, but it might reduce the costs and increase effectiveness of response the next time around.

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