Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Hurricane Irene and 9/11: The Importance of Disaster Preparedness

Kent Roach

Closure of airports, subways and theaters and mass evacuations in New York City – like those experienced during Hurricane Irene – have disturbing echoes of 9/11. But there is more connection between natural disasters and terrorism than might be imagined. Both require advance but imperfect prediction. Governments with a duty to protect the safety of their citizens have an incentive to favor safety over liberty. No one wants another 9/11 or Katrina on their watch.

Since 9/11, the US and many other states have spent billions of dollars on attempting to prevent terrorist attacks. Intelligence, preventive detention and wars have been all employed. Investment in emergency preparedness has been a relative late comer and has only gained prominence since Hurricane Katrina killed over 1, 800 people and caused an estimated $81 billion in damage. But emergency preparedness saved thousands of lives on 9/11 itself. The 9/11 Commission found that between 14,000 and 16,000 people were successful evacuated from the World Trade Center after the first plane hit. Lessons had fortunately been learned since it took four hours to evacuate the Twin Towers during the 1993 bombing.

Yet there has been resistance to all-risk security strategies in the ensuing fight against terror. The Bush administration focused on the prevention of terrorism as the number one security imperative. Katrina only merited a brief mention at page 47 of President Bush’s 2006 Security Strategy. The Obama administration has embraced an all threats approach to national security, but some worry that such an approach may dilute the focus on terrorism.

An all-risk approach follows international best practices. Canada adopted such a strategy in 2004 in part because of the 52 people that died in Toronto in a SARS outbreak in 2003 and it informs the perimeter security arrangement between Canada and the US. After some attraction with terrorism centered strategies, both Australia and the United Kingdom have adopted more comprehensive strategies in the last few years.

Emergency preparedness can serve multiple purposes. Evacuation procedures can work both in the aftermath of a terrorist attack and in the face of a hurricane or other natural disaster. It can help to control panic, reduce damage and promote resilience. The substantial burdens of emergency preparedness are imposed equally or randomly on the basis of who lives in the threatened area. In contrast, preventive strategies rely on selective targeting. This present a risk of discriminatory profiling and other mistakes that target the wrong person or fails to target the right person. The risk of overreacting through unnecessary evacuations are borne more equally than the risk of flagging, detaining or killing those who may not actually be terrorists or missing the real terrorists.

As early as 2002, the American National Research Council concluded that greater emphasis should be devoted to target hardening. Environmental strategies can improve security from both terrorism and natural disasters and place less emphasis on imperfect attempts to control human behavior. Better building standards for glass in skyscrapers may be more effective than imperfect attempts to evacuate. Rather than relying on security agencies to identify the next lone wolf terrorist such as Norwegian Anders Breivik, it may be better to focus on deadly substances used for terrorism such as bomb-making materials and weapons, Indeed the Golden Shield program flagged Breivik after he imported some bomb making chemicals from Poland.

We are often uneasy about harm reduction strategies because they avoid our intuitive instincts about causal and moral responsibility. No one likes to admit that bad things- terrorism and disasters- are to some extent inevitable. But harm reduction is not inconsistent with attempts to prevent the harm in the first place. We all accept air bags as a harm reduction strategy but still try to prevent drunk and other forms of reckless driving.

It is easy to criticize emergency preparedness as defeatist damage control: waiting until the enemy strikes. But the tragedy of 9/11 would have been even greater had resources not been devoted to emergency preparedness that allowed so many to be evacuated from the Twin Towers. This is something we should bear in mind when we contemplate the next 9/11 or the next Hurricane Irene.

About The Author

Kent Roach

Kent Roach is a Professor of Law at the University of Toronto where he holds the Prichard–Wilson Chair in Law and Public Policy. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of C...

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