Three million people fled southern Texas and Louisiana for Hurricane Rita, the biggest evacuation in U.S. history. But there were cars running out of gas, 14-hour traffic lines, and 28 killed in the evacuation itself. Now, four years after 9/11, can an American city empty itself safely and quickly?
Roger Cressey, NBC News analyst and former White House counterterrorism official, and Jack Weiss, Los Angeles city councilman and chairman of the Council‘s Public Safety Committee, talked to Joe Scarborough about the reality of preparing for disasters.
JOE SCARBOROUGH:, SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY HOST: We talked about 9/11 and the after-effects of it. We talked about the 9/11 Commission last year. And, yet, the more I see, the more concerned I am. What‘s going on in Washington, D.C.? Why can‘t they evacuate cities in a timely manner?
ROGER CRESSEY, NBC COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Joe, every time there‘s a national event, the bureaucracy swings from one end of the spectrum to the other.
So, there‘s a terrorist event, everybody swings to one end. Now that there‘s a natural disaster, we are going to swing to the other end. What we miss and what we don‘t have is a medium here, a balance between disaster planning, counterterrorism preparation, so that we are looking at all scenarios, putting the right resources against it, and exercising with federal, state, and local officials. We haven‘t had that type of planning.
SCARBOROUGH: All right, Roger, I understand all of that. I really do, that we do have to have a balance. But it just seems like we have just got idiots running this country.
You look at the image that we have got up on the TV screen. It doesn‘t take a 9/11 Commission to tell you open up all the lanes of traffic going northward. I mean, there seems to be a staggering lack of leadership on all levels, again, post-9/11, that‘s particularly disturbing. Am I being too harsh here?
CRESSEY: No, I don‘t think you are. It‘s what we would call when I was at the Pentagon a BFO: a blinding flash of the obvious. You open up those lanes.
I think we have seen here is, we have seen the same type of failure of imagination that we have seen in previous events.
And, Joe, the bottom line is that the nation‘s infrastructure is not structured in a way that will allow for the rapid flow of people from major metropolitan areas, even if you have 48, 72-hours notice. We have seen what has happened in cities like Galveston and Houston.
Now imagine if we have a dirty bomb attack or, God forbid, a nuclear detonation. It‘s going to be much, much worse than anything we have experienced so far.
SCARBOROUGH: And that‘s the question.
Let me bring in Jack Weiss.
Jack, I know you saw images of that bus, I mean, a tragedy, that bus on fire. In fact, if we have that tape, let‘s show it. There it is. I mean, just, again, this is chaos. It reminds me of when the helicopters crashed in the desert in 1980 in the ill-fated rescue attempt of the hostages in Iran.
But, Jack, got a question for you. If I am living, let‘s say, in Orange County, and I find out in the morning that there‘s a dirty bomb in L.A. and I try to evacuate, are you able to tell me tonight that Los Angeles can lead an orderly evacuation of its residents?
JACK WEISS, LOS ANGELES CITY COUNCIL: Oh, absolutely not.
There is no question that, today,L.A. is not prepared to do an orderly evacuation, in fact, Joe if you live in Orange County, and L.A. Gets evacuated, you are lucky because you are 30 miles ahead of the hordes of people who are going to be rushing out of town.
Joe, last week, L.A. had its first rain of the season. Rain is a pretty unusual event, but it‘s pretty benign. L.A. couldn‘t handle its first rain. I have no idea how L.A. would handle a dirty bomb attack. Joe, it is amazing.
SCARBOROUGH: Jack, why is it? I mean, Jack, you are in charge of this stuff, and I appreciate you coming here telling us this.
What has happened? As you have gone in to investigate your city‘s ability to respond to this type of crisis, what‘s happened through the years that has put Los Angeles and just about every other major city in a position where it can‘t even get its people out safely in the event of, like you said, a dirty bomb going off?
WEISS: Well, I appreciate your saying I am in charge of it. I haven‘t been in charge of it for all that long.
And when I asked the folks in the emergency preparedness department, where is the evacuation plan, they couldn‘t point me to one. I mean, it‘s shocking. It‘s something that Mayor Villaraigosa and Police Chief William Bratton and I are demanding be changed right away, because L.A., on a good day, you can‘t evacuate downtown L.A. After 3:00 p.m. on an afternoon rush hour anyway.
We do need to come up with better plans in L.A., and Roger is absolutely right. We need those blinding flashes of the obvious, because, right now, the bureaucrats are not pointing the way out of L.A.
SCARBOROUGH: Roger, what have we been doing for four years since 9/11?
CRESSEY: Preparing to deal with the last attack, Joe. I think, when you see the type of money that‘s been thrown to state and local officials, it‘s been given to them with no real overarching plan. There‘s no standards or best breed, best practices they should follow.
So, when you throw the money to them and say, well, you know best, we at the federal level, we really don‘t want to tell you how to spend that money, you end up with the type of mistakes we have seen, number one. Number two, there‘s never been a real rigorous assessment in Washington of each state and each major metropolitan area of, what do they do well, what don‘t they do well, and where can the federal government fix those vulnerabilities and those deficiencies?
This isn‘t to say that, if you get it right, you are going to get it 100 percent right. You never will in these type of catastrophic events. But I think we all agree we can do better.
SCARBOROUGH: But, Roger, Roger, what was the circus we saw last year on Capitol Hill in the 9/11 Commission hearings? Did they do any good at all? Did anything get adopted that is going to save a single American life?
CRESSEY: Oh, I think so. I think they did a lot that‘s good.
But that failure of imagination, Joe, that the 9/11 Commission talked about repeatedly, that is what at issue here today, isn‘t it not? I mean, you look at what happens in New Orleans and with Hurricane Rita. There was a failure of imagination. And so, you need to have everyone at the federal, state, and local level be proactive and a little more creative. And that‘s what‘s been missing.
SCARBOROUGH: All right, Jack, I want to show you this, again, the image of the traffic here. It‘s trapped. How does that happen? How do you have it where you have got people that are stuck in traffic for 15, 20 hours? They have got the other lanes going into the city opened up. And nobody is smart enough to get on the phone and say, why don‘t we open up all of the traffic going north, because we are not allowing anybody to come back south into the city anyway?
WEISS: Oh, it‘s insane.
And you have to understand that, when you want to understand sort of the ultimate evolution of the bureaucrat in America, look at a local transportation engineer. That is a highly evolved and oftentimes poorly functioning creature. You need to have a mayor, a leader cut through the B.S., cut through the red tape and demand that that other lane be opened.
That‘s what you need.
WEISS: In L.A., the problem is, frankly, that, unlike a city like Houston or New Orleans, we don‘t really have a city center, right? We have got several city centers. People are always coming and going in every which direction.
SCARBOROUGH: It is. Boy, Jack, I will tell you what. You are right. It is so spread out there that I am glad you are—I am glad you are on this task. I am glad you are speaking out about it, because you have got one of the toughest jobs in America when it comes to evacuation.
I want to thank you for being with us, NBC terror analyst Roger Cressey and, of course, Los Angeles councilman Jack Weiss.