How Ready Is America For The Threat Of Terrorism And Natural Disasters?

Recently, the FBI thwarted a terrorist attack aimed at the Federal Reserve Bank in Manhattan. The planned attack by a 21 year old from Bangladesh who arrived in New York six months ago on a student visa is believed to be the act of a “lone wolf”. Thus far the suspect has not been tied to any known terrorist organization but possible connections are being investigated. The FBI and local law enforcement agencies such as the New York City Police Department have successfully prevented a number of planned terrorist attacks from developing since 9/11 as a result of aggressive intelligence efforts; but it is expected that the threat of a home grown terrorist succeeding in an attack on a high profile target remains grave. Best estimates tell us that between 45 and 50 terrorist attacks have been prevented in the United States since 9/11.

There is no unanimity on what a “terrorist attack” looks like. The shootings at the Fort Bliss army base by Major Malik Hasan Nadal, an Army psychiatrist, and follower of a radical Islamic cleric, is still classified by the federal government as an act of workplace violence. The murder of our ambassador to Libya is still argued by some as a spontaneous reaction to a video purported to be an insult to the Islamic religion rather than a premeditated terrorist attack against America planned to coincide with our national observance honoring the lives lost in the terrorist attack on our nation eleven years ago. Defining the exact legal contours of an act of violence against Americans as a terrorist act as opposed to another category of crime such as homicide should be left to legal scholars and political scientists. What is important is that our national government recognize its first duty to the people is to protect its citizens from violence by those who believe that American citizenship is a sufficient basis for their hatred of us and serves as justification for their acts against us. Not all specific acts of terrorism are reasonably foreseeable, but nevertheless we must recognize that they will occur and try to anticipate, try to prevent them and be prepared to protect ourselves from their consequences.

Motivation aside, just how different is man-made violence from violent acts of nature that over the years have delivered mass destruction and loss of life around the world? In this day and age we must admit that both man and nature are capable of delivering mass mayhem, and that such occurrences are foreseeable events. In recent years, we have become more aware of disaster preparedness and the need for personal responsibility to deal with the damage inflicted by earthquakes and tornados as well as losses resulting from bombings and shootings. As I write this commentary, the northeastern region of the United States is preparing for what is already being called the “perfect storm.” A combination of climatic changes heading for New York City is bringing heavy rains, hurricane force winds and dramatic temperature changes predicted to hit the heart of the City within 48 hours. New York City’s center, with its canyons of concrete, steel and underground electric cables is thought to be less vulnerable than the suburban communities that surround it. The heartbeat of America is located on Manhattan Island, a sliver of land eleven miles long and two miles wide at its widest point; it is a potential evacuation nightmare should the surrounding waterways head inland. Manhattan is also the home to America’s best-known terrorism targets and has survived man-made attacks in the past as have many other communities around the world. But this looming attack on us by nature may provide an even more compelling measure of just how ready, or ill prepared,we are to deal with a calamity for which we have had years to prepare. Have we heeded the lessons of the past and stored basic necessities such as food and water; have we prepared our homes to withstand the winds, rain and floods to which we are so vulnerable and will we stay out of harms way or will we bet our lives nothing horrible will happen, throw caution to the winds, ignore the warnings and continue with a normal schedule believing that the predictions are just another round of dire disaster that will pass with little notice? We have heard it all before and remain skeptical about the need for the drastic alterations to our daily routines being called for.

It is not unusual for Americans to believe that we can overcome any challenge that comes our way. Having been tested by earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, forest fires, and acts of war and terrorism, it has become our nature to face such threats calmly. Therefore, I would not be surprised to find after this storm passes that many of us decided to sit this one out watching Sunday football instead of spending some time ensuring that enough food, water, batteries, gasoline, generators and other necessities are on hand to last for a few days until life returns to normal after the storm. But even if we are fortunate enough not to have to resort to the survival techniques being called for, going through an exercise in crisis management will leave us better prepared for the man-made or natural disaster that does target us in the future – for one or the other is sure to come our way.

October 26, 2012

P.S.

October 31, 2012

Dr. Pat Murray and I were finally able to retrieve our car from our Manhattan garage and venture up to the South Bronx to visit our client, the Hunts Point Produce Cooperative Market. Pat is a clinical psychologist and develops strategies for training programs provided through the Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center that we operate. The Market has a public safety program which provides not only security for its several thousand employees, business owners, customers and coop staff through its peace officer and general security personnel, but also offers emergency response teams prepared to provide medical and technical assistance in the event of man-made and natural disasters. The preparedness program by its Department of Public Safety resulted in their being no injuries or damage to the Market which continued to provide produce to the public during and after the storm. Its planning and training paid off; the surrounding communities however have suffered a tremendous level of damage and loss of life far greater than even the most dire predictions suggested. The lower tip of Manhattan Island disappeared under the waters of New York Bay which raged through the streets connecting the East and Hudson rivers on both sides of the island. Fortunately when the waters receded we were left with only a warning of the overwhelming power of nature to undo what man has made.

The extent of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy along the east coast of the United States will go down in the history books as perhaps the greatest natural disaster, in terms of its destructive power, ever to visit the New York metropolitan area. Hundreds of private homes were destroyed, thousands of inhabitants lost most if not all of their possessions, New York City’s mass transit system, the largest round the clock municipal transport system in the nation, together with its connecting systems to the City’s suburbs and neighboring New Jersey Transit System were brought to a halt; and the loss of life is still being calculated. The bridges, which are the arterial highways linking Manhattan Island to the rest of the City, were shut down as winds reaching 100 miles per hour were recorded. The three major tunnels connecting Manhattan with Brooklyn, Queens and New Jersey remain closed due to flooding. As of this writing more than one million residents of New York City are still without electric power for even their most basic needs including elevator services for those of us living and working high above the city streets. New Yorkers, not used to having to fend for them selves, have received a brief introduction to what millions of others on this planet have endured when nature or war suddenly turns the lights out.

Our visit to the market was to learn how well the foreseeable risks of such a disaster were responded to by a community trained for a natural calamity, and to identify what lessons are yet to be learned from the forces of nature challenged us. First we learned that a well-trained staff, led by dedicated professionals prepared to respond to every reasonably foreseeable eventuality of such a storm, is an essential asset. They constantly monitored the water levels of the Bronx River that borders the rail lines along the eastern boundary of the market threatening the important rail delivery of produce into the market. The physical integrity of the market buildings and their invaluable cache of produce stored in them and in the refrigerated trailers around them, including roof-tops, were constantly evaluated in the face of high winds and rains which constantly pounded the facility. And perhaps most important, the ability of the market to receive produce from across the country via over- the- road tractor trailers; and the trucks of customers and suppliers which continued to come to the market to deliver and purchase produce for the 22 milliion plus consumers serviced by the market, had to be ensured through-out the treacherous conditions that prevailed.

P.P.S.

November 7, 2012

Mother nature continues to test our resolve to overcome adversity. As a consequence of the widespread power outages throughout the New York metropolitan area, gasoline stations have had to shut down leaving tens of thousands of commuters, first responders, and those delivering essential supplies to stores serving the public with an increasing limited ability to go about their business. We are now coming to grips with the fuel shortage but before we relax a “noreaster” with high winds, heavy rains and some snow is now pounding the metropolitan area again with expected damage to the already storm damaged east coast. The Market, aside from preparing to keep its operations going, is now involved in donating and delivering fruits and vegetables to the thousands of victims on last week’s storm who are still homeless and desperately in need of food as well as warm clothing and shelter. This morning without notice four two and half ton trucks of the army national guard appeared at our front gate led by patrol cars from the local police precinct to pick up food for those in need. Notwithstanding the fact that they were unexpected, the vehicles were filled with fresh produce from the Market’s cooperative members and sent on their way. It is not only paying customers that need to rely on the Market for food supplies.

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