According to the Houston Chronicle, prior to September 11, 2001, the Federal Emergency Management Agency warned that the three most likely, most catastrophic disasters facing the United States were, in descending order:
- A terrorist attack on New York City.
- Flooding in New Orleans.
- A San Francisco earthquake.
In addition to FEMA's warning of scenario number one, Pres. Bush's Aug. 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Briefing explicitly warned him that al Qaeda was targeting New York City.
We know that Pres. Bush did nothing in response -- he said the warnings weren't specific enough. We also know, thanks primarily to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, that President Bush responded to scenario number two not with a plan of action to save New Orleans, but with funding cuts and diversion of resources that crippled prevention and reaction efforts.
So, what about number three? When a devastating earthquake opens the earth beneath San Francisco, what steps will Pres. Bush have taken, in response to the warning he got four years ago?
Here are some of them...
Every year since the 2001 warning from FEMA, Pres. Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress have appropriated less than one fifth of the previously authorized budget for the Advanced National Seismic System. What does the ANSS do? It studies earthquakes in order to improve quake-resistant building techniques and develop warning systems.
Pres. Bush also made good on his threat to eliminate Project Impact, a federal disaster-mitigation agency. Early in 2001, he had announced he would eliminate the agency -- so he could spend its $20 million budget elsewhere -- on the very same day Project Impact was credited with saving lives.
Then, just this year, after reducing the Federal Emergency Management Agency from a cabinet-level position, he announced that FEMA will no longer have anything to do with disaster preparedness, the very function for which it won so much praise since its rejuvenation after its lackluster response to Hurricane Andrew during the first Pres. Bush's term in office.
The list goes on. We don't know exactly how many professional and emergency responders may be far from San Francisco right now due to service in Iraq. We don't know exactly how many volunteer responders haven't been trained due to insufficient funding.
And we can never know the full impact of all these decisions -- financial, political decisions -- until it's too late. Until the third scenario out of three comes to pass. And, no, it's not right to blame Pres. Bush, or anyone, for hurricanes and earthquakes. But he and other politicians spend millions during their campaigns to convince us of their intelligence, foresight and dedication to the task of keeping us safe. That means they have to think about the threats that face us. It means paying attention to science, and heeding the warning signs -- particularly when they come in the convenient form of federal reports. And it certainly means taking measures to prevent or mitigate those threats. Pres. Bush has done none of these things, and for that we can blame him, and we should.