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Are we prepared?

By Henry Schuster
CNN

Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat those.

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Acts of terror
Disasters (General)
New Orleans (Louisiana)
Emergency Incidents

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- The water is receding, leaving sewage, petroleum, mold, mildew and rotting bodies.

Life is slowly getting better -- too slowly for most.

The questions, like the stench, will linger. This column isn't about the obvious ones: Who is to blame, what should have been done.

The next question has to be -- is the United States ready for a terror attack?

Imagine if this had been a dirty bomb in a major city. A chemical attack. Or let's say well-placed explosives blew up the New Orleans levees.

The obvious answer is no, we are not ready for a terror attack. Not even close.

The 9/11 attacks were horrific enough, but they were in a relatively small geographic area. They didn't displace an entire city, leaving it virtually uninhabitable, with hundreds of thousands of people in a limbo of evacuation.

And the attacks happened without warning.

There was plenty of advance warning of the levee breaks. Professor Ivor van Heerden and his team at the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, for example, were part of the Hurricane Pam exercise last year that showed just what was likely to happen if a Category 4 storm hit. He even briefed someone from the White House on the results.

That was last year. Two days before the levee broke, he was also warning officials in the Louisiana state emergency operations center that the city was likely to end up under water.

His model warned that more than 125,000 people in New Orleans wouldn't have transportation to get out.

We took a helicopter ride with him over New Orleans this week, and he was angry at what he saw: "We tried our damndest to warn everybody. And unfortunately here, reality is unfolding in front of our eyes."

It bears repeating: If we had warnings in New Orleans for both long-term action -- strengthen levees -- and short-term action -- residents may need help to leave -- and the warnings were ignored, how would we have handled a similar-scale terrorist attack that hadn't been foreseen?

On Tuesday, when President Bush accepted some responsibility for the problems, he also acknowledged: "Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government."

Descent into darkness

What about the looting? Why wasn't that addressed in planning models?

As the floodwaters rushed into homes and forced people up into their attics and onto their rooftops, waiting for helicopters and boats to rescue them, other hellish scenes were playing out in the city.

Looting, deprivation and chaos. Hunger, death and pain inside the Superdome and Convention Center, inside shops and homes.

The people who broke into stores to get food and water to save themselves weren't looters, in the classic sense -- the looters were the people stealing plasma TVs and clothes. Gangbangers and criminals.

None of the main planning scenarios -- including those of van Heerden -- anticipated such civil unrest.

Looting and disorder happened after Hurricane Andrew, but nothing like in New Orleans. This compares with the calm after the Northeast power blackout in the summer of 2003, especially in New York, which had seen far worse during previous electrical failures.

But the unraveling of New Orleans happened seemingly within hours. Quite a bit of it appears to have been gang-related, according to law enforcement officials here.

Crime in New Orleans was so bad already that the FBI office here was on the verge of setting up an unprecedented tactical operations center before Katrina, something it hadn't done anywhere else in the country, to monitor and target the worst of the violent criminals.

The crime happened -- and it wasn't anticipated, at least by most of the planners, who seemingly relied on the best impulses of humanity to keep an appalling situation from turning into a nightmare.

They were wrong.

Just imagine trying to respond to a 9/11 or something even worse, and having to worry about anarchy in the streets.

Even now, as we travel New Orleans' streets in what is supposed to be a deserted city, yet one patrolled by the military as well as police officers from all over the city and state, we are very much on our guard.

Are we ready to handle the aftermath of a terror attack? Clearly not.

Your questions

Just a final thought before throwing it open to you. We tend to put terrorist events in a separate category because of their cause, rather than their effect.

But the effects can be the same. A chemical weapons attack has an analogy in a chemical spill -- remember that at least 15,000 people were killed by a chemical leak in Bhopal, India in 1984.

In the same way, a biological attack is akin to a breakout of food poisoning.

So, in one sense, preparing the civil response and public health systems to handle both attacks and accidents or natural disasters seems to be a reasonable definition of homeland security. The same plans could be used -- as they could have been for either a major hurricane or major sabotage destroying New Orleans' levees.

An unpleasant question remains: Were the folks in charge of homeland security and emergency management so focused on terrorism that they failed to recognize what could be done in other, more likely disasters?

We'd like to get your questions and thoughts about Katrina and how the hurricane and its devastation relates to terrorism. E-mail them to trackingterror@cnn.com.

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