By Stephen Flynn
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Stephen Flynn is the author of "The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation." A retired U.S. Coast Guard officer, Flynn is a homeland security expert and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Americans have failed to learn the most important lesson of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina: We need to make building resiliency from within our borders as urgent a priority as confronting dangers from without.
There would have been thousands of more victims in New York on September 11 if the city had not made significant new investments in emergency management and if the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owned the World Trade Center, had not conducted regular fire drills, improved the emergency lighting and applied photoluminescent markings on stair treads and handrails in the stairwells of the twin towers. It was New York's investment in resiliency after the 1993 World Trade Center truck bombing that made that tragic day in 2001 far less tragic.
Today, New Orleans would have long ago recovered from Hurricane Katrina had the city's flood control system not been so badly neglected. But throughout the 1990s, the funds that might have been used to repair and strengthen the levees and flood walls were routinely bled off for other projects. In 2004, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers asked for $22.5 million to make emergency repairs to the storm protection system in New Orleans, the White House cut that figure to $3.9 million. It was New Orleans' lack of resiliency in the face of a foreseeable natural disaster that produced a catastrophe that has practically destroyed a great American city.
Building resiliency requires three things. First, we must anticipate likely man-made or natural disasters. Second, we must be willing to take prudent actions in advance of these disasters that lower our exposure to their potentially catastrophic consequences. Third, we must be able to mobilize a speedy response and recovery after disasters occur.
An estimated 90 percent of Americans now live along the coast, near flood zones and earthquake fault lines, or in other locations that are at a high or moderate risk of being hit by a major natural disaster. But since 9/11, we have been acting as though the only serious threat we face is terrorism and that the only way to manage that threat is by military efforts abroad. When an aggressive offense against terrorists is our only defense, homeland security and planning for natural disasters end up as lesser priorities.
This is insane. Sure we should be confronting our enemies when we have the intelligence to tell us where they are and what they are up to. But our intelligence apparatus is badly broken and the terrorist threat is a rapidly mutating. We need only look to the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, Spain, and the 2005 attack on the London subways to remind us that the al Qaeda threat is not confined to the Middle East and that all acts of terror cannot be prevented.
More importantly, Americans are far more likely to be caught in the cross hairs of a major natural disaster such as an earthquake, flood, forest fire or a hurricane than an attack by terrorists.
No act of modern warfare, with the possible exception of a nuclear exchange between major world powers, has the potential to threaten as many lives and cause as much disruption to the global economy as the H5N1 avian influenza would if it makes the evolutionary leap that allows it to spread among humans as quickly and as lethally as it has among birds. Of the just over 100 documented human infections between 1997 and 2005, the mortality rate was 54 percent. With a flu outbreak leading to a projected 80 million illnesses in the United States, millions of Americans would be in need of hospital care, but our entire national inventory of staffed hospital beds is just 970,000.
Acts of terror and disasters cannot always be prevented, but they do not have to be catastrophic. The key is being willing to invest in things that are not particularly sexy, such as public health, emergency planning and community preparedness.
It requires that we repair frail levees, pipelines, dams and the electrical grid. And we also need to learn from disasters and near misses. Californians adopted a new construction code after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. New Yorkers took evacuating skyscrapers seriously after the World Trade Center was attacked in 1993. Adequately preparing for foreseeable events is the only way for the United States to step back from the edge of disaster.
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Stephen Flynn, a homeland security expert, believes the United States is leaving itself vulnerable to another terrorist attack or natural disaster.