Homeland Defense Begins at Home!

The terrorist attacks against London’s subway and bus systems last week provided additional proof – although none was needed – that it is impossible to provide 100 percent protection against disasters, natural or manmade, threatening any nation, any family, or any individual.

The attack by Hurricane Dennis against the U.S. Gulf Coast just two days later provided comforting evidence, though, that – despite a certain number of fatalities, and numerous injuries, as well as a massive amount of damage to homes, businesses, and infrastructure – advance planning, combined with modern technology, can not only keep losses to the minimum in times of great turmoil but also help significantly in the aftermath of such disasters.

The terrorist bombings, carefully timed to cause maximum damage during London’s morning rush hour, killed more than 50 people and injured hundreds more in the space of less than a minute. The first three bombings, on widely separated trains, led to a closure of the entire London Underground system; the fourth bombing, half an hour after “the Tube” had been closed, shattered a crowded two-decker bus. The attacks came completely without warning, according to government spokespersons.

Hurricane Dennis, in contrast, had been tracked since its birth, and before hitting Florida and other Gulf Coast states had already killed five people in Jamaica and ten in Cuba. Thanks to the advance intelligence provided by satellites and the 24/7 information reported by U.S. television networks, thousands of businesses closed early and were boarded up (as were probably tens of thousands of private homes), and hundreds of thousands of people headed north, from the Florida Keys and the Gulf Coast, to emergency shelters and various safe harbors hundreds of miles from the predicted path of the storm.

There is no way to calculate the exact number of lives that were saved by the early warning and quick evacuation, but few would argue with the statement made by Keith Robertory of the American Red Cross (ARC) that the number of deaths and injuries had “apparently been kept to the minimum.” At least part of the credit was due, Robertory said (in a 12 July ARC press release), that those fleeing north were better prepared this year than ever before. “They learned some lifesaving lessons from last year’s storms,” Robertory said, referring to the four hurricanes that hit Florida last year. (One of them, Hurricane Ivan, killed more than 100 people, including 52 Americans.)

Similarities, Differences, and Advanced Technology 

There were, in short, a number of similarities between Dennis and the bombings. There also were some important differences. The most important similarity, perhaps, was that, thanks to previous experience, the decision making authorities and emergency-response communities on both sides of the Atlantic were demonstrably better prepared than they were last year or the year before or at any time prior to 11 September 2001. So were the millions of British and American citizens directly involved in one way or another in the two disasters.

Thanks to detailed advance planning, followed by numerous training drills and exercises, the emergency rooms in London’s hospitals performed at a level reminiscent of the U.K.’s finest hours in the early days of World War II. Their efforts were matched across the Atlantic by the American Red Cross and other U.S. public and private sector agencies and organizations coping with the wrath of Hurricane Dennis. The ARC alone opened an estimated 180 shelters and served more than 45,000 meals and snacks in just two days. Moreover, although an estimated half-million people along the U.S. Gulf Coast still had to repair structural and property damage ranging from fallen trees to total devastation, recovery time was expected to be much shorter than after Hurricane Ivan last year.

Meanwhile, surveillance cameras, including one at the King’s Cross subway station – combined with improved forensics technology and dogged police work – were used by Scotland Yard to help identify the remains of four young men alleged to be the suicide bombers, according to today’s Washington Post.

Lessons Learned Are Not Enough 

The Scotland Yard investigations, in which the United States and other allies have a strong vested interest, will continue for the indefinite future. At some point, official reports will be released. Included in those reports, as always, will be long lists of “lessons learned.” Those lessons will be useless, though, if they are not followed – not only by national decision makers and first-responder agencies and organizations, but also by businesses and schools (ranging from primary and middle schools to the great colleges and universities), other private-sector organizations, families, and the average everyday citizen.

In the United States, those lessons will be studied as thoroughly as they will be in the United Kingdom – perhaps even more thoroughly, if only because, as is generally recognized, the United States is the primary target of so many international terrorist groups.

As suggested earlier, advanced technology will help make the United States better prepared to cope with terrorist attacks. So will additional funding for security measures and equipment earmarked not only for buses and subway systems, but also for trains and cruise ships, both of which have been overlooked in previous appropriations bills approved by Congress.

What will help most, though, will be a major and continuing infusion of common sense, strongly flavored both by patriotism and by a collective determination to “never surrender,” as Winston Churchill thundered in the darkest days of early World War II, but to persevere and eventually win the global war on terrorism.

Whether that determination exists today has yet to be determined, so to speak. Fortunately, there already is an abundance of common sense ready to be distributed, much of it already accumulated, distilled, and promulgated by the Department of Homeland Security and the American Red Cross – the co-sponsors, not coincidentally, of the September 2005 National Preparedness Month.

Sites of Great Wisdom 

The ARC, which has been in the preparedness business for more than a century, used Hurricane Dennis as an example last Saturday (9 July) to encourage “every American household” to develop “A Family Communication Plan.” Included in such plans – which also are recommended for schools and businesses – should be such information as how family members will be able to stay in contact during an emergency (or regain contact after the emergency is over), the advance designation of a relative’s home or other place where family members could meet “if your home is affected or the area is evacuated,” and various “alternate modes of travel” (another way of saying “escape routes”) that can be used “in case you [or other family members] need to walk or take … [an alternate] form of transportation.”

The keys to developing (and, if necessary, implementing) an effective plan, the ARC emphasizes, are advance planning, preparation, and practice. The highest priority on the planning list should be detailed “contact information” for every member of the family, so that “people close to you know how to reach you and you know how to reach them.”

Again, there are several common-sense steps that have to be taken. The first is to designate “an out-of-town friend or relative” to serve as the family’s contact point. “In an emergency,” the ARC notes, “it may be easier to call long distance … [because] local phone lines may become overloaded.”

The next step is obvious: “Write down your contact information and encourage each member of your family to do the same.” Once that is done, each family member should keep his or her contact information current, and all family members should keep with them, at all times, the contact information for all members of the family.

The contact information for each member of the family should include, as a minimum, the following: the name and phone number of the family’s out-of-town contact; the regular and emergency phone numbers of all family members; and the location (preferably with directions on how to get there) of the family’s pre-designated emergency meeting place.

For additional information about the American Red Cross and its Family Communication Plan, see www.redcross.org. Included on that website are recent ARC press releases and “Spotlight” reports on Terrorism Readiness, Commuter Preparedness, and other information helpful in coping with disasters of any type.

The preceding is the first of two reports related to the ARC/DHS plans for the September 2005 National Preparedness Month. A follow-up report will provide detailed information on the DHS ready.gov website, which includes a wealth of information on how businesses, government agencies, public- and private-sector organizations and agencies, and everyday American citizens can cope with biological, chemical, and radiation threats, explosions, and natural disasters.

James D. Hessman

James D. Hessman is former editor in chief of both the Navy League’s Sea Power Magazine and the League’s annual Almanac of Seapower. Prior to that dual assignment he was senior editor of Armed Forces Journal International.



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