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THE STORM [home page]
tom ridge

A former governor of Pennsylvania, Ridge was director of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from 2002 to 2005 and previously headed the White House Office of Homeland Security that was created one month after 9/11. Here, he rebuts arguments that FEMA was hurt when it was moved into DHS in 2003, discusses the lessons that have been learned from Katrina and candidly responds to the question, "In a major disaster, can we really evacuate America's cities?" He also explains why, four years after 9/11, the overwhelming majority of American cities and metropolitan areas still don't have robust communications systems in which emergency first responders can talk to each other. This is an edited transcript of an interview that was conducted on Oct. 14, 2005.

What was the concept behind the Department of Homeland Security?

The concept behind the Department of Homeland Security began with the identification of organizations that already existed within the federal government, whose ability would be substantially enhanced if they were brought together under one, single umbrella -- i.e., the Department of Homeland Security -- so we could integrate the people and technology to prevent, detect and deter terrorist attacks.

Did we go too far in amalgamating so many different agencies into one hopefully coherent culture, the Department of Homeland Security?

We didn't go too far. I think it is the right mix. I think there is an expectation that the integration of all the people, all the technology, the business-line integration of procurement, human relations, IT, etc. -- there was an immediate need to enhance and raise up security. I think there was a hope that it could be done immediately, and obviously it takes some time. … There have been changes made after two years of looking at it, and some very constructive changes made, but there's still a lot of work that remains to be done.

The White House was initially reluctant to set up a new department. Why?

I'm not sure [they were] reluctant. They certainly were cautious, as I can recall very vividly, sitting in the Cabinet Room with the president when he had the leaders of the House and Senate together of both parties and basically asked them to hold back several months so that the new special assistant to the president on homeland security, myself and my team could take a look at the proposals that were on the books to determine if we were going to make that move and whether we would build on some of the existing proposals or come up with a completely new initiative.

As it turned out, we took some of the proposals on the books. You had Hart-Rudman Commission. You had the Gilmore Commission. There were a lot of people out there who thought about creating a centric agency, and we mixed the best of all of those, made a couple of additions and then sent the legislation to the Hill.

… You were running the Office of Homeland Security. Why wasn't that sufficient?

I don't believe you need to be involved in emergency response to see there was a significant disconnect between the federal, state and local government.

We concluded that while the opportunity existed within the office to coordinate, we really had to have direct responsibility over the agencies to move things along quicker.

We talked to a critic of the department, Richard Clarke, and he talked about the reluctance of both you and the White House in setting up the DHS, in contrast to what you're saying here.

Well, Richard, with whom I worked in the White House, characterized it as reluctance. I think in his mind we didn't move as quickly as we should. The president always kept an open mind about it, but we did take our time identifying the capacities that we wanted within the department and the add-ons that we needed within the department.

… The old agencies, basically we got the dollars that had been appropriated to them long-standing, but there were new components to the Department of Homeland Security for which we got additional money.

And new overhead. People inside FEMA complained they got taxed to pay for this new overhead.

Well, that's quite interesting they used the word "taxed," because these agencies and their individual heads understood that as part of the integration process that we're going to redistribute some of the dollars they had. But the notion that simply because you are going to change the organization or the framework within [which] you work means that you need additional money is not something that any of us bought into. I certainly didn't buy into it that first year.

Now, again, you have to take a look at the successive-year budgets, and there were significant increases every single year. Everybody had a role to play. Everybody had to accept the decision the first year as to reallocated resources. Remember, we excised some of these units out of other agencies, and there was a budget process that was very complicated.

Perhaps the decision as to getting X number of dollars for a particular unit could have -- in retrospect, we would have liked to have given them a little bit more. But by and large, money the first year was not the problem. It was accepting the notion that there was change, accepting a cultural change and then providing the leadership to begin that integration process.

Why did you not consult with Sen. [Warren] Rudman? … You didn't see him until six months after the formation.

If that's his characterization, it's unfortunate, because he made a great contribution, as did Sen. [Gary] Hart. But all their thoughts are on paper. They had a forum; they had a structure; they had many public venues with which we were familiar. And they were all taken into consideration as we built the new department.

[It was] time to quit talking. People at the [Hart-Rudman] Commission have been talking about it. The Gilmore Commission's been talking about it. The senators have been talking about it. We've heard all the explanations. We saw all the architectural designs. Time [to say,] "Let's quit talking about it and do it," and that's exactly what we did.

But you're talking about it within your group … and others. He's been working on this for 18 months. Doesn't it make sense to invite him in and pick his brain a little bit?

At the time, we had a pretty good idea what Sen. Rudman was thinking. His way ahead was quite clear. The fact that the architecture may not have ended up quite as he had hoped is just from his perspective. He thought he had the best design. From our internal perspective, we took the best of what he offered and other commissions offered, pulled it together, and frankly, we actually built on some of the things that he recommended. …

A lot of complaints today about FEMA's downgrading into a sub-Cabinet-level agency. … You don't think FEMA was hurt by the reorganization?

No, of course not. No. … The assessment of their ability isn't whether or not they have a Cabinet status, but whether or not they are given the support and funding in support of the mission through the new Department of Homeland Security, which they were.

But you said it was useful to have a Department of Homeland Security so you could actually order people around. If you were head of FEMA and then were suddenly told you were not going to have your Cabinet seat anymore, would you have been pleased?

It's not about an individual feeling good or bad about their title.

It's about leadership?

Well, it is about leadership. And there was initially a time within the department, as we were trying to integrate capabilities, that frankly there was a discussion about even changing its name. And there, [former FEMA Director] Mike Brown very appropriately resisted that. Again, all these things are notional. You're trying to integrate this department. You're trying to do things not only differently but better.

The notion was FEMA has such a brand name, we're going to leave it alone. The emergency professionals around the country, they know what FEMA means; they know what its capacity is; and they know what its responsibilities are. And by the way, after a series of tornadoes bounced around my congressional district in 1985, I was the principal author of the Stafford Act that basically reconstructed FEMA. So I know a little bit more about FEMA than most people would allow.

I don't think it was in any way denigrated [by] the inclusion into the Department of Homeland Security. It is the premier response and recovery unit in the world. And if you didn't have a FEMA-type organization in Homeland Security, you'd probably want one. So why create two? Bring it in, continue to support its traditional mission. Its new mission, however, is response and recovery after a terrorist incident.

Here we are four years after 9/11, and we still don't have robust, interoperable communications. Why?

The interoperable communication dilemma … -- the tragic consequences were most vivid on 9/11. The department has set standards for post-incident communications, interoperable communications, and there's technology moving in that direction. Ultimately a nationwide system, I think, is the goal of all the emergency responders, but it will take time to develop.

There is not only an enormous price tag associated with it, but overcoming the jurisdiction of disputes and the technology applications is going to take a little bit of time. But there it's not just federal leadership that's required. There you need the governors and the mayors, as they have received hundreds of millions of dollars for communications equipment over the past couple of years, to engage their first-responder community in developing interoperable communications.

The department sets the standards, it sends the money, and in time you'll see, slowly but surely, this system is being developed.

Why does it take so long?

I think you still have technology challenges. We still haven't agreed on a set of standards that would drive the private sector. And frankly, certain users of traditional equipment have a good relationship with a vendor, the good relationship with the provider that continues to this day.

But I will tell you that the communications industry and first responders and the department understand this is probably its biggest challenge next to information sharing. And there is, below the radar, a lot of movement in that direction. …

The Public Safety Wireless Network says that three states -- Delaware, Michigan, North Carolina -- have mature or widespread interoperability.


If Delaware, Michigan and North Carolina can do it, why can't the rest of the country?

Maybe you should ask them. And that was done because of the initiative and leadership at the state and local level.

But the federal government can hold their feet to the fire.

… It's one of the challenges as you … try to create not a federal capability, but a national capability, and to the extent that you can get these governors and their teams -- but I will tell you the momentum is there. …

But that's not going to sound good enough to most Americans who know that we have standards for education, for air quality, airports --

But it took a while for the standards to evolve. When you are dealing with a federal system of governance and loyalty to traditional vendors and suppliers -- and to this date, [there is ] not a consensus within the federal government, [also] the state and local government, as to which equipment to use and how to make it interoperable -- I know it sounds to most people like it's a slow roll. And in fact it is evolving. … And that's all I can tell you.

But again, if a few states are there already, what's wrong with the rest of the country?

I think maybe you're asking the wrong person. When I was governor, we decided to have a lot of our contracts lapse so we can begin to build an interoperable system. One of the challenges -- I'm going to repeat it again -- that I think we have in developing a national approach toward dealing with these tragedies is the federal system of government.

And if you are saying that for all times and all occasions the federal government is going to go in and tell governors how to build their interoperable systems and tell first responders which things they're supposed to use, I don't think you're going to [be] receiving a lot of support. We will set the standards. We will provide the money and, hopefully, leadership, to build the interoperable systems. We have technology now in the post-incident mode where it is interoperable.

How much money did the Department of Homeland Security in your tenure spend on interoperable communications systems in the pre-incident?

The thing I can tell you is the first amount of money that went out to the states and locals by our calculation, the first year or two, they spent about 70 percent of it, which is a very high figure on interoperable communications.

And they still didn't get there.

It's a very expensive proposition, and it's going to take hundreds of millions, if not billions or more, over time. But to the credit of the states and the local government officials and their first responders, they said communications are our highest need. And in the first year or two worth of appropriations, that's where they were spending the majority of their monies. So you don't have all the states listed as having achieved the goal, but I would say you've got most of them moving rather quickly in that direction.

But it took a 9/11 incident to suggest to first responders that maybe at times of challenge, they should be able to talk to each other. It's a shame that it had to come to that. But everybody is wrapped around that notion now.

That was four years ago.

Well, you keep dwelling on this "four years ago," and you act as if you could snap your fingers and you could develop a nationwide interoperable system.

But you're giving away the money, right? You can say, "OK, everybody's going to get X amount and the standards will be set."

I'm sure my successor and his successors will set the standards so that the private sector knows what they need to do, and those who require the equipment can build the interoperable systems. We're not going to build the system for them, at least at this juncture. Perhaps politically someone will say … the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] and the Department of Homeland Security have to build a national system. To date, people have been comfortable with the amount of money that's going out and the fact that most of it is being spent on improving communications systems.

When you say they set the standards, why not just say, "You have to have such-and-such a system in place in one year from now, and you've got to buy this system to these specifications, and that's the deal"?

We're not going to pick a vendor over another. You can keep pressing me on this point as long as you want. The fact of the matter is they're spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make their systems interoperable. They've begun that process four years ago. The process continues today. It will not occur overnight, but there is sufficient intensity to this proposition that it will be done.

Well, with our federal dollars, we expect that the federal government is going to knock some heads together and get some of these companies to deal --

To track the patient. I think it's a fair expectation. I think Americans could say to the federal government and the state, locals and the technology providers, and it would be in terms of the next step: "You need to get the FCC together and Department of Homeland Security."

Everybody's got an interest in it nationally. You need to pull the first responders together and the private sector and say: "These are the standards with which you must comply, the technological standards which we must comply. They must be interoperable standards."

Again, the Department of Homeland Security can't do that in and of itself; there are a couple other federal agencies involved. It is a legitimate expectation of Americans that this next very aggressive step be taken. …

And so you weren't able to get this done because you ran into resistance.

No, it was a priority for us immediately to do something post-incident [9/11] -- connectivity and interoperability. Obviously, it took a little bit more work. When I left, we were talking with the FCC about pulling them in and other agencies in to help us at the interoperability standards so the private sector can address it and then go sell their wares to all these governors and mayors and first responders, who have hundreds of millions of dollars in their pocket that want to buy it, and we'd just simply say to them, "Unless you meet the standards, you shouldn't buy it, because we're not going to reimburse you for it."

And do you feel like you were making sufficient progress when you were in charge?

We had a very aggressive private sector office in the Department of Homeland Security. We had begun the outreach to the telecommunication companies. We'd been talking to first responders. Everybody understood this was the mission and that the next step, frankly, was to build the standard and hold people's feet to the fire in terms of buying that kind of equipment. …

[Former New Jersey] Gov. Tom Kean [chairman of the 9/11 Commission] said about the 9/11 attack: "What's frustrating is the same thing over and over again -- a lack of communication. Our first responders not being able to talk to each other, it's outrageous, and it's a scandal, and I think it's cost lives." … He's talking about the failure of communications systems. On the ground, the people that get there can't talk to each other because the radio communications don't work. They haven't gotten enough what's called spectrum.

Well, again its spectrum is FCC. He's talking broadband.

Government owns the airwaves.

You're right. So have you ignored what I just said the past 15 minutes?

I've tried not to.

I know. But the fact of the matter is that his concern was raised post-9/11. People were working very hard to address it. They haven't achieved the goal. He's right. We're not there yet. We just talked about the next step that I believe people are trying to take.

Well, I'll stop hitting you over the head with that.

I don't mind. First of all, the concern is legitimate, the need is apparent, and the initiative and the amendment is to get us there. But there's a legitimate expectation that it should be done quickly, and in a post-9/11, post-Katrina environment, I suspect that it will have enormous momentum to that task. …

Can we evacuate cities, really?

I think it would prove to be virtually impossible on very short notice to get urban America out of the way, as it were. We saw the difficulties associated with evacuating Houston and New Orleans when we had days' notice. So I think one of the difficult lessons from a Katrina-like event is that it's very difficult to do, and it lends itself to the notion that, but for weather events, we're focusing on terrorist-related incidents around which you may not have any notice.

The idea that you may literally have to [go to a] shelter and stay there until whatever the agent is -- be it a biological or chemical or radioactive [agent] -- dissipates is something that we've long discussed. And I think Katrina shows that might be a lot more closer to reality than most people want it to be. Tough getting out of urban America, and not enough venues in and out. …

As former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, when Katrina hits, what lessons are you learning?

I don't believe you need to be in any way involved in emergency preparation or response to see that there was a significant disconnect between the federal, state and the local government. I can't tell you, as we're having this conversation, as to why it occurred, but it is very, very clear that it did occur. … But it's pretty clear that they weren't singing off the same song sheet, even in terms of preparedness. And why it happened, who knows? But we have to make sure that it never happens again. That's the first lesson.

The second lesson is, the whole notion of evacuating cities is very, very difficult. It is limited access to and from these urban communities. It's people running out of gas. It's just a real challenge. And so the notion that we could under most circumstances be prepared to evacuate will cause us to rethink that strategy. The department has never thought that that would be the number one way to deal with most terrorist events, because we recognize the difficulty of evacuating, particularly with little notice.

A third lesson -- so many policemen didn't report for duty. But there may be an honest, legitimate, human reason for it. They were worried about their families. And as a spouse and a parent, their first inclination professionally may have been to go, but I still have to worry about my spouse and my kid. So … they showed us in a very dramatic way -- there has to be some level of confirming with them that their families are OK. …

And clearly there's another element where we're finding, after the fact, that people who had responsibility for others in nursing homes and the like, for whatever reason, seemed to have abdicated that responsibility. …

It seems the focal point of the Katrina failure is somewhere between the state and FEMA -- that FEMA expected the state to be better prepared and to do more, and the state said it was doing everything it could do, that it was overwhelmed, and therefore FEMA had to step in. You said that they weren't singing from the same song sheet.

Yeah. Basically it's an abbreviated interpretation of what you just said. Look, when it comes in terms of preparedness, I don't know what the communication was between FEMA and the governor [Kathleen Blanco] as everybody watched the Weather Channel and the hurricane's coming across the Gulf. I know that FEMA, prior to the hurricanes the year before, had pre-positioned both supplies and people and medical equipment in different places, not just in Florida, but in Atlanta and elsewhere, so that when the skies cleared and they could move quickly, they moved quickly.

I know that FEMA had had conversations with the state and local. So I can't speak to what they did around Katrina. But it was pretty clear from everyone's perspective that if the conversations were held, at the end of the conversations there wasn't unanimity or consensus to what they needed to do to prepare.

Did the system fail in ways that you were surprised by, given that you had once held the job, the ultimate responsibility for seeing the system function? Did you fail in ways, and you said, "Oh my God, that would have happened under my watch, and I guess we have to do a better job of X, Y and Z"?

Since I'm not privy to the conversations that existed or not, and what individual decisions were prior to the event, I can't comment. That would be the worst kind of speculation. … The National Guard wasn't prepared to go immediately. Was I surprised at a lot of things that people who know nothing about emergency preparedness were surprised about? Yes. Why it happened, I do not know. … It depends on the individual decision making. …

When you're a governor of a state, do you get a visit from FEMA? Is that [what] happens before a disaster happens, and they sort of brief you on what they're going to do and what they expect from you?

First of all, the emergency preparedness community has had a very, very good working relationship with FEMA. Take a look at FEMA the past 20 years. You mentioned James Lee Witt. He was a terrific leader of that organization, despite what he said about [former Bush campaign manager and FEMA Director Joe] Allbaugh. Allbaugh did a great job.

So these FEMAs out there, they're a good organization, and they're connected to the state emergency operation centers, the county or parish op centers. That conversation isn't anecdotal. That conversation -- that's going on all the time. That's why some of the consequences of Katrina are puzzling to me, because it's not as if FEMA was unknown to the principals and the agencies in Louisiana or elsewhere.

And it's not as if there weren't conversations held, not by the governor and the FEMA director, but on an ongoing basis, between or among the different emergency professionals involved in that on a day-to-day job. That's their profession, their passion. They're talking all the time.

Say you have a major disaster in the state of Pennsylvania. What would you expect from FEMA? Where would your responsibilities end, and where would theirs begin?

We would call upon FEMA to help if the potential event or the event itself certainly overwhelmed our capacity to deal with it ourselves. And certainly, in anticipation of this one, you can anticipate it might be a little bit too much for the mayor in New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana to deal with. And you always err on being overprepared than underprepared.

That's one other dramatic lesson from this experience: … People should be erring on the side of being overprepared. But I can't tell you what happened here. I wish I knew.

So you support the idea that there should be a full investigation of what went wrong?

… I think a very thoughtful inquiry as to how FEMA was set up, the roles and responsibilities both before an incident and after an incident. But I think it has to include the state and local level. Whether you're dealing with a terrorist attack or a natural weather event, a horrible accident …there's a sheer leadership principle that needs to be embraced, because the federal government, the state government and the local government all bring different capacities to deal with that incident.

And so as we're looking for an answer to some of the problems associated with the preparation for and response to Katrina, … there's shared leadership all around, … and I think we need to take a look at it -- lessons learned, tough lessons, painful lessons, maybe some expensive lessons -- and make sure it never happens again.

In summary, what does Katrina tell us about our state of national preparedness, whether it be a hurricane or a terrorist attack?

I think it would be very difficult to draw conclusions nationally about the state of preparedness on one incident. I daresay -- what I know about other states and other communities, their level of preparedness might have been a little bit higher, and so if a similar incident or something like this occurred elsewhere in the country, the response and recovery effort and the preparedness effort might have been different.

It might have been worse.

It might have been worse; it might have been better. And the fact of the matter is, however, to the point that you're making by the very nature of your question, quite obviously you want it uniform; you want it national. And at least in this part of the world, in response to this kind of incident that we saw three, four days in advance, we weren't as well prepared as we should have been, pure and simple. Find out why, fix it, and make sure it doesn't happen again.

And in a terrorist incident, we don't get three days' warning. Have we overemphasized preparedness for terrorism to the detriment of being ready for storms?

Not really. If you think of it, on an anecdotal basis since 9/11, while we've had training and exercises dealing with terrorist attacks, we've actually had real field challenges because of weather events around the country to which FEMA has responded. So while we've talked notionally and then tabletops and done exercises in terms of terrorist response, dealing with natural weather disasters is something FEMA has done rather successful[ly] from Sept. 11 through, unfortunately, Katrina.

And it's this incident that has raised questions about their effectiveness, about their [competence], about their budgetary support -- legitimate questions. But until this time, those questions weren't raised. So I don't think there's been an overemphasis on terrorist-training exercises within FEMA, because frankly, the programs and the approach is basically going to be the same.

Do you want to give a grade to how [current Secretary of Homeland Security] Michael Chertoff performed after Katrina?

No. Decisions made in preparing and responding and recovery to any of these events are not unique to one individual, and nobody knows the context within which people make decisions unless you're actually there.

But this was an incident --

Before I second-guess anybody, I'd sure as hell like to know a lot more about the context in which conversations were held and information was shared, and I don't have that context. So I'm not going to grade anybody. Generally it's clear there's work to be done. There's a shared responsibility, shared leadership. Let's see what we did right; let's see what we did wrong. And I'm absolutely certain that if something went awry within the Department of Homeland Security, Judge Chertoff would lead the charge to correct it, period.

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posted nov. 22, 2005

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