Duck and Cover-Up

Seattle could be next, and obviously we have work to do.

Sitting atop a major fault and in the shadow of an active volcano, Seattle should be paying very close attention to the catastrophe in New Orleans. The message for us is very simple: If the Big One comes, we're screwed.

The Big One, by definition, doesn't come often, but history and geology tell us that at some point, perhaps tomorrow, it will. Science says that the Puget Sound region will be rocked by a cataclysmic earthquake and/or a major volcanic event. A major quake could flatten the city we love. An eruption or cone collapse of Mount Rainier could blanket the suburbs with a flow of debris as far north as South King County. A big quake could also be accompanied by a tsunami, flooding, and massive landslides—landscape-reshaping events like the one that sent an entire forest to the bottom of Lake Washington.

If geography weren't enough, there is our strategic importance. During the 1950s and 1960s, we were a first-strike nuclear target of the Soviet Union because of Boeing and our region's military installations. As a child of that era, I remember the air-raid sirens that blared every Wednesday at noon and the duck-and-cover advice we were given at school. You know things are bad when preparedness basically involves telling schoolkids to hide under their desks during an atomic attack. While the Cold War is over, the vulnerability of our port to terrorism is obvious, and the fact that we are within reach of "peerless leader" Kim Jong Il's nukes leaves open the possibility of a major nuclear event.

As the past 10 days have proved, we are not prepared. In trying to excuse the federal government's inexcusable bungling in response to Katrina, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff likened the devastation on the Gulf Coast to a nuclear attack. Hey, what could we do? That excuse reveals a greater problem than the one he is trying to cover up with a steady stream of lies (such as maintaining that the government had no clue the New Orleans levies could be breached, or that the storm was worse than expected, when precisely the opposite is true). We ought to be able to anticipate and deal with the fallout of a nuclear attack on an American city, much less major storms. His admission means that homeland security boils down to the old duck and cover.

This administration went to war over weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. If spending billions of dollars and thousands of lives in Iraq to prevent a potential attack at its source was a justification for war, what justification can there be for being completely unprepared at home for an attack that would arrive with less warning than Katrina? Are we all offense and no defense?

The truth is, four years after 9/11, we are demonstrably less secure than ever. Not only have we wasted blood and treasure in Iraq, we have diverted those resources from basic programs that protect Americans at home. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's budget and staff have been cut, so too the funds intended to shore up Louisiana and the Mississippi River, and we are now bogged down in quagmires in two gulfs.

And it could get worse. Hurricane season is just beginning. So is evidence that the world is vulnerable to a major flu pandemic. The frightening fact is that the problems in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama could be compounded by new, overlapping disasters. There is no reason a major quake or terrorist attack could not occur in another American city today or tomorrow. Our ability to fight on multiple fronts is compromised by the Iraq war and the lack of preparedness, underfunding, and incompetence at the highest levels of government.

From the perspective of what science tells us, Seattle is in a lousy location, as bad or worse than New Orleans' below-sea-level bowl. The pioneer Denny and Boren families had no way of knowing that, but we have no excuse to ignore it. With our current knowledge comes responsibility to the current and future residents of Seattle: We must do whatever it takes to get ready for our equivalent of breached levees.

We need to fix the Elliott Bay seawall. The Alaskan Way Viaduct has to come down and be replaced with a structure or surface solution that is seismically sound. We've got stretches of I-5 that need fixing; we have failing streets and bridges throughout town. The Highway 520 floating bridge is a major storm away from failure, and, having previously lost the Interstate 90 bridge that way, you'd think we'd know better. We need to invest selectively and smartly in infrastructure repair, upgrades, and retrofitting.

We also need to have disaster plans that the people, rich and poor, understand. In the event of a massive earthquake, do any of us know where to go or what to do? How to leave the city? Where to find shelter? And how would we know if radio, TV, land lines, cell phones, BlackBerries, newspapers, and the Internet are all out of commission, as in New Orleans? Simply telling people to stay put is not an option. Many of the people of New Orleans who hunkered down got the worst of it.

Let the New Orleans debacle give us new, more sensible, and serious civic focus to leave a legacy of survival when the worst finally happens.

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