Time to Brace for the Next 9/11

Photo Ilustration by Newsweek (source photo); Andrew Mills / Star Ledger-Corbis

Paul Stockton, the Pentagon's point man for security in the homeland, plans for the kind of apocalyptic events that could forever change the lives of millions of Americans. Assistant Secretary of Defense Stockton, a lifelong academic who speaks passionate jargon, calls them "complex catastrophes" with "cascading effects," and, like Sept. 11, 2001, these new tragedies could have gut--wrenching social and political consequences. Yet the horrors he's preparing for are far bigger than 9/11: tens of thousands of people killed, the economy devastated, national security gravely compromised. And the terrorist who will be responsible for these atrocities is Mother Nature. Stockton's yardstick for cataclysms is not "worse than 9/11," it is "disasters even more severe than Hurricane Katrina."

They're coming. Of that, Stockton and other disaster-management specialists have little doubt. Last month the East Coast suffered the psychological shock of a relatively small earthquake and what turned out to be a pretty weak hurricane after some pretty strong hype. "Apocalypse Not," headlined the New York Post. New York City "dodged a bullet," as Mayor Michael Bloomberg put it. But New Jersey, upstate New York, and several states in New England didn't. In Connecticut alone, a record 650,000 households lost power, many of them for several days. In Vermont, food had to be airlifted to towns cut off by flooding. All told, Hurricane Irene killed 43 people in the United States, and estimates of the damage range up to $20 billion.

That's just a little taste of things to come. Whatever the cause—greenhouse gases, natural warming, or both—-rising temperatures and sea levels already are breeding bigger, more intense hurricanes and more dangerous storm surges. Former vice president Al Gore, the teller of so many inconvenient truths about climate change, says it is "absolutely" a national-security issue. "We can expect continued increases in the frequency and severity of extreme floods, droughts, wildfires, storms and other events," he says. "We need to begin the process now of preparing for the disasters that are to come."

According to Gore, "some scientists are considering adding a Category 6 classification to the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, which uses wind speed to measure hurricane intensity." (Irene hit the Northeast as a low-grade Category 1 and then was downgraded to a tropical storm; Katrina hit New Orleans as a Category 3. A Category 5 hurricane has sustained winds greater than 155 miles per hour; Category 6 would be upwards of 175 or 180mph.) And each notch on that scale means an exponential increase in destructive power.

"The rules of risk assessment are being rewritten right before our eyes," Gore says. "This year alone, in the United States, we have had 10 $1 billion–plus disasters. FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] is already nearly out of money." (Read Gore's full comments here.)

The problem is not just that nature's juggernaut has grown so powerful. It's that much bigger populations are in its path than ever before. "People keep moving into these megacities, which are coastal cities," says Madhu Beriwal of IEM, an emergency-management consultancy that did pioneering work on the threat to New Orleans before Katrina hit in 2005. And as the Northeast learned last month, it's not just the power of the tempest; it's the path that can make a huge difference. That can be estimated, but a difference of just a few miles determines whether a city stands or falls.

There's also a good chance we'll be blindsided by the next cataclysmic disasters—what planners call "no-notice events"—because experts might predict the general threat, but not the specific hits we wind up taking. "If you look back at history, we were focused on natural disasters for a long time, and then we had 9/11," says Beriwal. "Then we focused on terrorism exclusively, and then we had Katrina, and we focused on hurricanes. And then we had the BP oil spill. There's always something that happens at the periphery of our vision."

In areas where earthquakes used to rend the ground and alter the course of rivers with little impact on a sparse human population, millions of people now live and work and depend on vulnerable infrastructure. The quake, the tsunami, and the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear-power plant in Japan are cautionary examples suggesting what could happen in the United States, but there are plausible scenarios in America that are worse. Much worse.

Two hundred years ago, in the winter of 1811–12, what author Simon Winchester has called "a great swarm of earthquakes" struck in the region north of Memphis, around the town of New Madrid, Mo. The shocks were so intense that the ground liquefied, and the Mississippi River flowed backward and its banks collapsed. Whole new lakes took shape. But few people were killed because few people were around, and theirs was a horse-and-buggy infrastructure.

Last May, FEMA ran a national exercise based on the assumption that new quakes of that magnitude—about 7.7, with an aftershock of 6—could hit in roughly the same region. ("We are in the periodicity of a recurrence," says Stockton, slipping into disaster jargon; the chance of another quake like this grows every year.) Studies calculated about 86,000 people would be killed or injured, 10 times the number of Katrina. "That's what keeps me up at night," Stockton told the Aspen Security Forum last month. Some 7.2 million people would be displaced, and 2 million would need temporary shelter. Direct economic losses would total about $300 billion, while indirect costs could double that figure. As many as 15 nuclear-power plants operating in the New Madrid quake zone could be affected.

Even if there were no meltdowns, studies for the exercise estimated that 42,000 search-and-rescue personnel would be needed to address the crisis, which would mean not only the deployment of National Guard troops, but regular military forces as well. That's where Assistant Secretary of Defense Stockton's department comes in, big time, and one reason he takes such an intense interest in these potential catastrophes. FEMA may take the lead in disaster relief, but the military is involved every step of the way.

One consequence of 9/11 has been a decade of wars fought in faraway lands, and all that combat experience in Afghanistan and Iraq already is changing the way help is delivered on the ground inside the United States. National Guard units from all over the country have now served in shooting wars, developing discipline and levels of coordination and technical expertise they could rarely have achieved otherwise. And the technology developed for battlefield surveillance and reconnaissance could be hugely helpful in rescue operations. But when it comes to drones flying over America, even to save lives, questions will be raised by critics of government wary of eyes in the sky.

Gore has little patience with such arguments, and says flatly that "we must make sure that our satellite early-warning systems are in place—in the U.S.—to monitor the weather and the climate." When faced with the potential apocalypse of a no-notice event, every bit of preparation counts. And when it comes to the dangers that lie ahead, there's now no question that notice has been served.