Chertoff: Planning for disaster requires everyone
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff delivered the keynote speech at the health summit. U.S. News Editor Brian Duffy introduced the secretary.
DUFFY: Thank you all for coming today. Thank you for your participation this morning in a very vigorous round of questions and answers with all the panelists.
It's really a pleasure for me to introduce one of the great public servants of our time, a guy I've known for some time, Secretary Michael Chertoff a former federal prosecutor, one of the finest in the country; a former U.S. attorney in New Jersey; former head of the criminal division of the Justice Department, and now the secretary of homeland security. It's my pleasure to introduce Secretary Michael Chertoff.
CHERTOFF: I see I'm competing with a chicken for your attention. [Laughter.] And from what I've been told about well, I shouldn't say it. I was going to say from what I've been told about the chicken, it looks like I'm in a pretty good position in this competition. [Laughter.] I'm sure it's quite healthy, though. I think that's very important.
I really appreciate the opportunity to join this very distinguished group to talk a little bit about emergency preparedness. I know that my colleague, Secretary Michael Leavitt, was here this morning talking about avian flu, and I'm going to talk a little bit about that as well because we work together in dealing with some of the preparedness issues that we face as we anticipate the possibility of an avian flu either having an impact on our bird population here or, worse, on our human population.
But before I get to that, I want to obviously make note of the fact that we are approaching the start of hurricane season. Last week I went down to Orlando, Florida, to speak with emergency managers during the annual hurricane conference which is held down there and which of course brings together senior emergency officials from all of the states that can reasonably anticipate the possibility of a hurricane during the course of this year. And I might point out, by the way, that for those of you in the Northeast who think you're immune, there's a very scary scenario involving the city of New York and a hurricane, which, although I hear a laugh, but I'm telling you, they've actually studied it which, although a remote possibility, would be very challenging for New Yorkers in terms of things like preparedness and evacuation. So this is an issue which touches on more states than just those we commonly think of as being in the path of a hurricane.
What I'm also going to be doing over the next few weeks is going down to visit with governors and emergency managers in the Gulf to talk specifically about how we can work together to make sure we are as prepared as we possibly can be for this hurricane season.
I had the opportunity to visit with Governor Riley of Alabama and Governor Barbour of Mississippi on Friday, and then yesterday I was down visiting with Governor Blanco in Louisiana and Mayor Nagin in New Orleans. Obviously there are particular challenges that those regions that were afflicted by Katrina and Rita face as they get ready for this year.
Of course, the fact that hurricanes are coming doesn't mean it's the only we challenge we face, because we also have to continue to prepare ourselves for the possibility of a terrorist incident or for pandemic flu or for a catastrophic problem with the levees up in California. There's no guarantee that these things will come; there's no guarantee that they won't come; and, of course, they could happen in sequence or they could happen all together.
The fact of the matter is that when you look at these issues and others, you see that emergency planning and preparedness cut across all sectors of our society. These are national issues; they require a national strategies and a national response that effectively integrates all of the levels of government as well as our first responder community, our private sector partners and our citizens.
Everybody here plays a critical role in this mission, and I want to thank you for being here. And I want to take a few minutes to lay out what we're doing at the Department of Homeland Security in both the near and the long term to boost emergency preparedness.
But I want to begin by emphasizing this: Traditionally, constitutionally, and by virtue of expertise and proximity, local and state governments are always at the first point of the spear when it comes to dealing with emergencies. The federal government of course has to play a role supporting them and getting people out of harm's way, but we do so in a way that does not upend the traditional approach of putting the management of emergency down at the most immediate and most directly impacted level. Now part of what we're doing, of course, on the federal level is making sure that we can bring together all of our capabilities, all of our planning, all of our training, all of our exercising and all of our grant making in a single integrated and comprehensive approach to preparedness, one that allows us to interact with all sectors of government and with the private sector. So we've unified the U.S. Fire Administration, our grants and training components, our state and local outreach components, our infrastructure protection, our cybersecurity and telecommunications, our national capital region, all in a single preparedness directory. I'm pleased to say that the leader of that director of preparedness, George Foresman, is a very experienced, hands-on emergency manager with over 30 years as a first responder and emergency manager here in the state of Virginia, culminating with his serving as homeland security adviser to Governor Warner, until the governor left this past year someone who had also served Governor Gilmore and was part of the Gilmore Commission on Terrorism.
By unifying and integrating all these elements of preparedness, we have created an ability to leverage all of these capabilities the money, the expertise, and the various perspectives to bring them together in order to have the maximum benefit of preparedness that we can afford to the citizens and to the various state and local governments of this country. The fact of the matter is we are working every day to fund, plan, train, and exercise the kind of robust response and recovery planning that we all need to face all hazards, whether they be natural hazards or man-made hazards.
We are, as the president directed last fall, well underway in the process of reviewing the emergency planning in all 50 states and the 75 leading urban areas to make sure that their evacuation and other emergency plans are up to date, that we've identified gaps in capability, and that we are working with our state and local partners to remedy those gaps. We got an initial report on February 10th, which was the deadline for stage one. It was a self-assessment, and frankly, it was a mixed assessment. Even people assessing themselves gave themselves some high marks and some not so high marks. We've now gone back and we are validating that assessment; we're looking at what has already been done. We're kicking the tires so to speak and we're now working with our state and local partners to make sure we upgrade and fill in on those areas where they found shortcomings.
One of the critical things we did early on was to identify the need for and designate a chief medical officer for the department. That's not because we're going to push the Department of Health and Human Services out of the way, but because so much of what we do in preparedness has got to be influenced by a real understanding of what medical realities are. If we talk, for example, about screening for epidemics or pandemics, and we have to build a system at the border to allow us to screen, we can't do that intelligently if we don't have somebody who can advise us about what is medically possible and what is not medically possible, what can be screened for and what can't be screened for.
And Dr. Runge comes to us with a long set of experiences in emergency medicine as a doctor himself, an emergency specialist, and as the former head of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. So we've, again, brought that expertise into play in a very practical way so we can really put preparedness at the very top of our agenda.
One of the things we learned by the way when we did one of our recent exercises, TOPOFF3, which is a scenario in which we essentially had a hypothetical biological attack on New Jersey, is that at every stage of the decision-making process, you can't make intelligent decisions if you don't have very good advice on medical and biological issues. And another thing we saw was that our ability to interact intelligently with the private hospital sector, with state health authorities, with local health authorities, and with our federal authorities was enhanced by having people in the department that can speak the language and understand the concepts.
So let me step back and first talk very briefly about roles and responsibilities.
In our system, as I said earlier, the principal responsibility to provide for the safety and security of citizens before an event happens and in the immediate aftermath of an event lies with local government. It's local government which has the authority and the know-how to put together that initial emergency plan, to figure out what the right evacuation route is, to arrange for public transportation, to take care of those people who can't help themselves, and who set up and stock the local shelters.
Now of course, local governments though can't necessarily handle everything, particularly in a significant disaster, so the next level of defense is state government. State government has the most powerful tool in disaster response, the National Guard, which is equipped and trained to deal with all kinds of emergencies that can affect a particular state. The state also has enhanced ability to provide assets and supplies, set up its own state shelters and some state use, for example, their community college system or similar types of systems to create a backbone for shelters. And the state also has, again, powerful legal authorities that come into play when there is an emergency. The federal government plays the next role of backstop. It is to respond to state and local needs, both before an event and after an event, to provide logistical support for search and rescue, emergency supplies, disaster centers, and, of course, claims processing for those kinds of federal assistance which are available under the law for those people who've been damaged by a disaster and who need to be able to get back on their feet and get back into their houses.
Now sometimes we have to supply a little bit more than others. We do recognize there is the extraordinary occurrence where you have a catastrophe that is so great that it really overwhelms local and state capacities. And in those cases we do want to be ready and we have gotten ourselves much more ready this year to come in and provide a little bit of extra help, and we do that not only using the tremendous resources of the Department of Homeland Security, which brings to the table not only FEMA, but the Coast Guard, thousands of trained law enforcement officers, the Transportation Security Administration, which has the ability to help us coordinate with the airlines, but also with the Department of Defense and the Department of HHS, which have a significant number of additional resources.
And I want to make this point as clear as I can: It is not the desire or intent of the United States government on the federal level to push aside or supplant state and local responders. We think the right answer is always to have the local and state responders out there first and we need to support them and support their authorities.
If there does come the extraordinary instance where we do have to come in and play a little bit more of an active role than in a normal model, we do then of course request and expect that the state and local responders will support us, not only with their resources but with their legal authorities, because to be quite frank, the legal authorities in an emergency are often largely state and local officials and not with the federal government.
But if I talk only about the government I'm only discussing a small part of the total number of people and the total resources that we bring to deal with an emergency. The largest element of what this society has to bring in the case of an emergency lies in the private sector with businesses and with individual citizens. And as I'm going to talk about very briefly, it's critically important that individuals in the private sector take responsible steps to prepare themselves, not only because of their own needs but because of the needs all of us in a very interdependent society have to make sure that everybody is pulling their weight.
Of course, the critical element is the health care center, hospitals, nursing homes, and other health care facilities, which have in many cases a legal and certainly a moral obligation to prepare, to develop evacuation plans, and other emergency plans to insure that people with special needs whose care has been entrusted to these caregivers will in fact be taken care of and will get the appropriate care in an emergency. Now as we talk about hurricane season, we've set a couple of deadlines for ourselves. June 1st is the start of hurricane season. By hurricane season, we will have completed and have in place a much more well-prepared and well-exercised unified incident command structure, a way for us to make sure that all the players can come to the table and coordinate; a 21st century logistic system that gives us the ability to track where our trucks of water and food are in real time so we can tell emergency responders where things are and when they're going to get to their destination; a much better hardened communications ability so we can talk among ourselves and we can talk to the public without being hampered when a catastrophe takes down all of the wireless towers and the other typical communications equipment; and then a series of hurricane exercises. We're actually going to build capabilities and then make sure that we have tried them out. Some of them will be tabletops, meaning we'll sit around and exercise with the decision makers. But at least in some instances, we want to take it out into the field and at least on a pilot basis kick the tires and make sure that the equipment and the plans work the way they're supposed to work.
A big piece of this is going to be sending a message to the public about citizen preparedness. The fact of the matter is and this is not new with me; this has been the received wisdom for decades rescue operations take time. Responders may not be able to reach people who are trapped in the first 24, 48 or even 72 hours. People need to take the steps to take in their own families to be prepared with food and water, medicine, a radio with batteries, and other necessaries. And you can go on the website for our ready.gov website or for state, local emergency websites and get information about the kind of materials you need to have on hand in order to prepare for an emergency.
Second element of this is planning. You need to understand what to do if there is an emergency. Some of that is families deciding how to meet up if they get separated in the course of a big catastrophe.
Other types of emergencies, like medical emergencies, require an understanding of kind of basic hygiene, how you minimize the possibility of infection, how you make sure that you can take yourself out of situations where you're putting yourself at physical risk.
And I want to go and say this is not only, again, a responsibility that individuals have to take for their own sakes, but it's kind of a civic responsibility. Because when people are able- bodied and they don't prepare themselves, what's going to happen is they're to force first responders to attend to their needs instead of focusing on the needs of people who can't help themselves. This is about the able-bodied and those who are you know, who have the financial wherewithal taking the steps to make sure that the emergency responders can deal first with those who need the most help.
And in this regard, I'm going to reiterate something I've said in a couple of occasions elsewhere about businesses as well. Continuity of operations is not just a question of responsibility to shareholders or to business stakeholders. It has to do with responsibility to the community. I can tell you that in Hurricane Wilma last year, there was plenty of oil and gas stored up. There was plenty of fuel at the gas stations that could be used so people could gas their cars up and get to the grocery store. So we didn't need to worry about delivering food to them. But none of that gas could get out of the ground, out of the tank underground if you didn't have a generator. And so, if we wanted generators, hours and days of recovery were slowed up, so that we could gas cars up and get people to work, you know, get the power lines working again, and get the whole system started up again.
And I've challenged the oil companies, who are certainly are not financially hurting these days, to make sure that the gas stations, that the franchisees have those generators. It's part of the civic responsibility to make sure that a breakdown in that business doesn't cause a ripple effect across society.
Yesterday when I was in the Gulf, I said to the nursing home owners, there was a bad experience in Katrina. People who invite and, I might say, charge to have the aged and the infirm come into their care have a responsibility to make sure they have built the capability to evacuate their people who are entrusted to their care. You know, in an emergency, sure, the government's going to come in and do it. But that is not an excuse for nursing home owners and hospitals to abdicate their responsibility, and I think that's something we ought to take very seriously as part of our social responsibility. Now of course, in this group in particular, you're focused on the particular responsibilities you would have in the case of a pandemic like the avian flu. And this has been in the news; Secretary Leavitt, I know talked about it earlier, as he does, pretty much on a regular basis, and as I do as well from time to time. And of course, I'm not here to say that avian flu is around the corner in terms of impact on the U.S., and certainly not to say that in the near future we're going to have a pandemic of regular human-to-human transmission. But I also can't exclude the possibility, and I know that the earlier you get prepared, the better prepared you're going to be.
Now I want to tell you, of course, that Secretary Leavitt at HHS and Secretary Johanns at USDA have been deeply involved with all parts of the federal government, under the president's direction, in developing response plans. And the good news is that, certainly with respect to the possibility of avian flu affecting birds, we have a lot of experience with this. The Department of Agriculture has dealt with major animal outbreaks in this country in past years. And whether it's mad cow or some kind of avian pathogen, USDA is very well practiced in dealing with this kind of illness from an agricultural standpoint. And their guidance is going to be critically important if we do some time later this year discover we have avian flu H5N1 in either wild birds or even domestic fox in this country.
State and local government also has a very critical role and a lot of experience dealing with this kinds of pathogens. But it's important, as we think about reaction to this, to make sure that at every step of the way as we engage, if we should have an avian flu outbreak, even simply among birds, that we think about how the public is going to react and that we appropriately communicate to the public what they need to do but also what they should not be afraid about.
Obviously, if we had avian flu we would need to monitor for human health, but we also need to make sure we get information out quickly and comprehensively and accurately so people know what they can do to protect themselves and so we don't have a panic that suddenly has all kinds of unintended consequences.
One of the things that it's my job to think about is all of the collateral things that fall out when you do have a health crisis, not just the medical consequences, but things like the people who become so worried they don't go into work and what the impact that has on our critical infrastructure. Because remember, in order to run your hospitals, you're going to need food, you're going to need water, you're going to need power. And so we want to make sure that people are and businesses are appropriately keeping those essential services running, even while the doctors and the medical community are worrying about what we need to do to protect people in terms of their human health. And that means, again, even as you function in your health care facilities, you need to be thinking not about your medical resources and supplies but, again, your generators, your ability to have some extra food and water, what your alternative supply chains would be, who your providers are, making sure your providers have identified ways to keep essential services flowing.
We're going to spend a lot of time on that, but this is not a top-down type of preparedness. It's in fact a preparedness that has to take place at every level. And we're going to be reminding people again and again that they need to have contingency plans in place.
And finally, I want to talk about the importance that we will continue to place on our public health officials and our emergency responders in the front lines, because the likelihood is an outbreak will first be felt and experienced at the local level.
Adequate education, thoughtful planning, and resources devoted to preparedness will be critical if we do have an onset in a particular locality to make sure we respond in as effective manner as possible, that we communicate so that others can get themselves ready, and that we are always coordinated in what we do to protect the lives of our fellow citizens and make sure we can continue to operate in all the essential arenas in which we have responsibilities.
My message, in case I didn't beat it home enough, is that the responsibility of preparedness falls on everybody. And our capacity to fulfill our mission at DHS depends entirely on our ability to work seamlessly with our partners in the federal government, state and local government, the private sector and at an individual level.
So I want to thank you for coming today. Obviously your attendance here shows how seriously you take this. The public relies greatly on the kinds of health care expertise and resources that you deploy every single day, and we look forward to working with you together to face whatever challenges the future holds.
DUFFY: If you'll raise your hand, and also if you'll identify yourself and your affiliation, please.
Q: Hi, I'm Angie Marek, with U.S. News. Earlier today we were hearing from hospitals about their concerns about not having the proper funds to be able to have a surge capacity, to kind of buy that equipment. My question for you is, what is the department doing to help them, are there any grant streams they can access, and is that even a DHS responsibility?
CHERTOFF: Well, most of the grant streams on, of course, public health goes through the Department of Health and Human Services. We do have some grant streams through the states, homeland security grants or Urban Area Security Initiative grants and other similar infrastructure grants, some portion of which may be available certainly in terms of public health preparation as it relates to hazards that, for example, could be biological hazards. Obviously, the private sector has a responsibility to fund itself.
If there were an emergency, we are identifying surge capacity that we could bring into play. There's the National Disaster Medical System, NDMS, which we brought into play, for example, in Katrina. There are other kind of surge capacities in HHS and even at the Department of Defense. Of course, in a pandemic which would be nationwide, we wouldn't be following the model of surging toward a particular geographic area. We would have to make sure there was a surge capacity that was distributed across the country.
I think we also have to think out of the box a little about capabilities. And maybe we have to figure out ways to treat people that are, you know, not necessarily hospital-based, but maybe clinically based, can even be based in businesses certain kinds of things we could do to reduce the pressure on hospitals. So and some of this, obviously, is making more money available. But some of it is also being creative with the resources we have to try to stretch them as far as possible.
Q: Mr. Secretary, it's Wilson Dizard with Government Computer News. I'd like to ask you about your department's efforts to perhaps encourage the federal government and other levels of government to review their so-called continuity of operation, continuity of government plans, especially with regard to their information technology that would be instrumental in developing all kinds of delivering all kinds of services to the public.
CHERTOFF: A critical part of the planning we're doing now with respect to the possibility of a pandemic is in fact making sure government agencies have reviewed and our strengthening their continuity of operation plans. Part of that means identifying essential workers, and also figuring out who could work from home. And obviously the ability to do that depends on the availability of a significant IT structure and the ability to have people do some of their work using home computers.
So clearly, we have to make sure we have our own house in order. We're doing that internally at DHS. The other departments are doing that as well. And I think the private sector also has to be encouraged.
You know, if we have a limited amount of vaccine for a particular type of pandemic, we're going to have to figure out who has to come to work in order to perform essential services, who can work from home performing essential services, and who maybe doesn't need to work because it's not essential and ought to stay home during a period where there's a particularly intense concern about communicability of diseases.
So one of the things to think about in advance is how much we can use models like telecommuting as a way of having business COOP plans as well as government COOP plans.
Q: Mr. Secretary, Art Kellerman, Emory University. Thank you for coming today.
A great deal of money and time and effort has been put into preparing for bioterrorism. But if you look around the world, the terrorists' method of choice is explosives, conventional weapons the calling card of al Qaeda Madrid, London, and other cities.
But at the federal level we've pretty much zeroed out funding for trauma systems, planning and development and trauma centers. How prepared do you think we are as a country to handle the threat of conventional weapons such as what happened in Tel Aviv yesterday?
CHERTOFF: You know, I think the answer is that one thing that we actually have a lot of experience in is explosions. We've had those over the years. Sometimes they're a consequence of an accident. But I don't think that the notion of a bomb going off I mean, we went through the first World Trade Center in 1993. That cost some loss of life. We went through that system.
I mean, frankly, what the government has done is try to focus on those areas where we need to raise the level up to an adequate level as quickly as possible. And one of the areas I think that we were quite far behind in and we spent a lot of effort trying to get up to speed in is the biological area, precisely because, as the anthrax attacks of 2001 showed, we didn't necessarily have a lot of experience in that, and it was important to start to get into place the kinds of tools that would allow us to respond to an event that could be catastrophic in consequence.
So that's not to slight the importance of training for trauma, training for ordinary kinds of explosions. But it's to recognize that conventional weapons we actually do know how to do pretty well. Police know how to do it; firefighters know how to do it, because they've done it, and because it tends to be geographically confined.
And a lot of the pressure we put in preparedness is particularly focusing on the kinds of threats that we haven't had the experience in; that we don't have the real capabilities in.
And I might say, I think we've done an awful lot in the last few years to really build up a system of capabilities that would serve us well and put us in a much better position in the war in 2001.
DUFFY: One last question, Mr. Secretary.
Q: Mr. Secretary ...Half the population, or about half of it, lives within an hour of a major body of water. Can you walk us through a little bit of what you're doing regarding protection of the waterways of the nation?
CHERTOFF: Well, I figured you'd be asking about evacuation plans. And I guess that's a little part of it if you have floods.
Obviously, the Coast Guard plays the critical role on the from the federal standpoint in terms of protecting our waterways. As you get further out into the ocean, of course, the Navy that becomes the domain of the Navy. And we do have a maritime domain strategy that is focused on making sure we've fully integrated the Navy's capabilities and Coast Guard's capabilities protecting our coasts against some kind of a threat from overseas.
The next level of that, of course, is the ports, making sure somebody doesn't come into our ports. And there again we have Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection share a lot of that responsibility.
The thrust of our strategy is always put the defensive perimeter as far away from the United States as possible. We want to intercept the threat thousands of miles away and not dozens of miles away or in our own country. That means increased use of intelligence information. It means adapting technology like radiation portal monitors and X-ray type screening machines, gamma screening machines, not only in our own ports but putting them overseas in our Megaports program and other similar kinds of programs.
It means increasing the level of security at the ports themselves through some initiatives which I think we're going to be rolling out the next couple of weeks that will continue to raise that level making sure the port itself is safe. Finally, of course, even in our rivers and navigable waterways inside the United States we have the Coast Guard, we have local police who are constantly monitoring, making sure we have a higher security level, particularly at those elements, or those parts of the waterways where there is critical infrastructure. There can be oil terminals. There can be major shipping piers. We've got to protect that stuff even on our navigable waterways, and we are working with the Coast Guard and the local and state officials to make sure that we're doing that.
Finally on the issue of evacuation, which would apply if we had a natural disaster obviously flooding is very much on people's minds. The critical element here is timely evacuation in advance of a flood. And that means people have to listen to local officials and state officials when they say get out.
Riding out the flood or riding out the storm when you've been told there is a mandatory evacuation is not only foolish on a personal basis but it actually has a negative impact, again, on others who may not have the ability to move themselves.
So one of the things I've been spending time on, particularly down in the Gulf, is making sure that we're working closely supporting our state and local partners where we are concerned about floods to make sure they have good evacuation plans, they know where people are going to be sheltered, they have the capabilities together, and they are educating the public about what they need to look for if in fact an evacuation has to be called for.
DUFFY: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.