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Panel: Nation’s ability to respond to hurricanes ‘light-years ahead of where we were’

WASHINGTON—Four days after the seventh anniversary of September 11, a few weeks after the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and in the wake of Hurricanes Gustav, Hanna, and Ike, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sponsored a forum at its Washington, D.C. headquarters to review the strides made in ensuring preparedness and enhancing protection of the nation’s critical infrastructure.

Robert B. Stephan, the Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary for infrastructure protection, led an expert panel at the special session of the Chamber’s National Security Task Force in a discussion of public-private partnerships, progress, and new initiatives for implementing the National Infrastructure Protection Plan.

“The NIPP is not just a document that sits on a shelf, but rather the means to develop and nurture partnerships that help save lives, save communities, and put things back together more quickly,” Stephan told the group. “Recent events illustrate just how far we’ve come since 2001. We are light-years ahead of where we were when Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma struck.”

DHS representative Scott Cubbler discussed how the Office of Infrastructure Protection prepared for Hurricane Gustav, which hit parts of New Orleans previously struck by Katrina. This time, DHS Protective Security Adviser Louis Dabdoub (formerly the police commander for the French Quarter) was on the scene to help emergency management staff prioritize critical infrastructure assets before the storm hit.

“People on the ground from all sides had already coordinated and knew the issues in advance,” Cubbler said. After the storm, federally provided unmanned aerial vehicles photographed the affected areas to help local authorities assess the damage and facilitate owners and operators’ restoration activities.

Stephan is confident that the response to the next hurricane season will show even greater improvement—”If you think this was good, wait until you see how far we’ll be next year.”

Other panelists spoke about improving readiness at the regional level. Highlighted were water sector achievements developing a national network of “utilities helping utilities” by tapping into state and local intrastate mutual-aid networks. Scott Kelly, chairman of the Florida Wate / Wastewater Agency Response Network (WARN), described how the Florida WARN responded to a series of major hurricanes in Florida, Mississippi, and Texas to rapidly restore impacted water and wastewater systems.

During the past two years, Kelly said, the American Water Works Association and DHS encouraged development of WARN systems and other collaboration within the sector. Thirty-one states have developed intrastate water-related mutual-aid networks, and seven more are pending. Recently, the sector activated the network to respond to the water-borne Salmonella outbreak in Colorado.

Bruce Larson of American Water described how water control systems, like those of other sectors, are increasingly vulnerable to targeted cyber attacks or accidental events. To address this problem, the sector’s Coordinating Council Working Group released the Roadmap to Secure Control Systems in the Water Sector. Under the NIPP, the roadmap is a 10-year plan to secure national water and wastewater facility systems’ critical cyber functions. The water sector must coordinate, Larson observed, as it does not have the opportunity to “get it right the second time around.”

Stephan announced a DHS initiative to expand implementation of the NIPP by creating a new Regional Consortium Coordinating Council. The RCCC will bring regional organizations and experts into the NIPP framework to improve cross-sector, cross-jurisdictional, and cross-functional infrastructure protection, prevention, deterrence, response, recovery, and long-term restoration capabilities.

According to Tom Moran of the All Hazards Consortium and a key member of the RCCC’s leadership, the RCCC will serve as a national forum for regional, multistate efforts to encourage regional resiliency and enhanced awareness of critical infrastructure interdependencies. “Partnerships exponentially increase resources,” he said.

Between natural disasters and terrorists, the nation still has formidable challenges, Stephan said. He urged attendees to take part in collaborative efforts to protect critical infrastructure and key resources.

“I need your help to make sure that we don’t just remember September 11 one day a year but every day of the year; that we always remember that we’re facing a very determined, aggressive, highly adaptable adversary in the form of Al Qaeda and like organizations,” he said. “They measure time in different units than we do—not in days or weeks, but in years or decades.”

Published in Public Safety IT, Jan/Feb 2009

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