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CNN Exchange: Commentary

Flynn: U.S. not prepared for the next 'big one'

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.

What is your take on this commentary? E-mail us

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the writer. This is part of an occasional series of commentaries on that offers a broad range of perspectives, thoughts and points of view.

Your responses asked readers for their thoughts on this commentary. We received a lot of excellent responses. Below you will find a small selection of those e-mails, some of which have been edited for length and spelling.

Marc, Los Angeles, California
It's about time for somebody to stand up and make Americans realize that we need to invest in critical infrastructure. We've already seen the consequences and we vow to never let them happen again, yet we keep failing to invest in levees, in emergency responders, and hospital beds. I wonder what it will take to wake us up? Apparently 1,300 people dying in New Orleans was not enough for our country to figure it out

Larry Wilson, Houston, Texas
The only problem is that there is no desire on the part of any U.S. leader to risk losing an election by asking us to make the expensive choice.

Sally Brandon, Winter Haven, Florida
I was born and live in the state of Florida, it blows my mind that people are STILL shelling out millions of dollars for homes on barrier islands. The name alone tells us what the function of that strip of sand is for, yet folks flock by the car loads to throw away money on a gamble.

Terrence Barnhardt, College Station, Texas
Who cares? We can spend a lifetime in fear of something that never (or rarely) happens and spend billions of dollars to protect ourselves from the same. Is it worth it? Obviously not.

Thomas Stiyer, Beltsville, Maryland
The author is right on the money. We could not be in a worse state of preparedness if our enemies were running our country. Money has been spent willy-nilly on who knows what and who knows where. We are told that nobody should have to pay his or her money to the government in taxes; as if all of our infrastructure, care, protection and research, to say nothing of political pay-back pork barrel projects, cost nothing. Yes, it's our money, but the bills are ours, also.

Robert, Nampa, Idaho
I totally agree. In addition I would ask, "Why do local and federal governments allow people to build in flood plains and tidal surge areas?" How many millions of dollars are spent to assist homeowners to repair and rebuild in these areas, only to have their homes damaged or destroyed by the next flood or hurricane?

Tom Iovino, Clearwater, Florida
This commentary is long overdue. I am an emergency management Public Information Officer in a coastal Florida county and -- even though we are pretty well prepared -- so much more can and needs to be done. We all need to realize that preparing ourselves is vital to this effort. I'm stunned when I talk with people who routinely let their gas tanks drain to E, keep less than one day's worth of necessary medication or let their pantries run clean of food. We need to create a culture not of panic but of preparedness!

Curtis Rankin, Paso Robles, California
Your commentary has obvious merit. The national problem is that the current White House is only interested in spending that serves its own narrow political interests, not any broad public interest where there is no immediate payback to the president.

Kurt Heuer, Brighton, Colorado
Most things in life are pretty simple. This is very easy to understand. Nothing complicated. Why can the leaders of this nation (Republicans & Democrats) take a good listen to what he is saying here and just "do it?" Everything has to be such a big deal. The simple fact is that we're not prepared, but does it have to stay that way? Sheessshhhh, I'll help.

Thomas Edwards, Zurich, Switzerland
Intriguing, with a logic no rational person can deny. But it requires Americans do the one thing they loathe most to do - open their pocketbooks and, yes, actually pay taxes for the protection we feel we're due. But if we won't even "pay as you war" in Iraq, how can we ever even begin to think about the issues of national emergency infrastructure mentioned by Flynn?

Gerald Cassin, Oxford, Connecticut
Right on the money with one additional thought. Regardless of which political party has power, or which one you belong to, pork barrel projects are taking money from these needed projects.

Stephen Flynn

Stephen Flynn, a homeland security expert, believes the United States is leaving itself vulnerable to another terrorist attack or natural disaster.

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