Former DHS chief criticizes local response efforts

RICHMOND, Va. -- Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on Monday criticized state and local preparedness in advance of Hurricane Katrina but was careful not to address the Bush administration's role in responding to the disaster.

Officials in New Orleans had "done their fair share of tabletop" exercises to prepare for a Category 3 hurricane, Ridge said at the Commonwealth of Virginia Information Technology Symposium here. But "given the unique geography" of the Gulf Coast, they "never did planning around a Category 5" storm and did not consider the possibility of the levees breaking, he said.

"It's easy to be the quarterback after the game is over," he said. "We need leadership at all levels," but "local training must be vigorous." The lackluster response of officials had "a lot to do" with the fact that officials had not prepared for "worst-case scenarios."

The hurricane's devastation could expedite the effort to establish a national wireless system, said Ridge, who resigned from the department last year. "Ultimately, Congress and the FCC will figure it out."

Robert Gates, who directed the Central Intelligence Agency in the early 1990s, was more philosophical. It is difficult in a democracy to "generate the political will" to prepare for a disaster in advance, he said.

Officials conducting tabletop exercises must decide when it is time to transfer power from a mayor to a governor or from a governor to the federal government. If those decisions are not made, the nation will encounter the same "delays ... and lack of leadership" displayed in the aftermath of Katrina, Gates said.

There must be a way to "cascade authority if someone is not up to the job," he said. "At what point do you say, 'This is not going to hack it?'"

"There's a value to getting governors and mayors involved," said Ridge, a former governor of Pennsylvania. "They get their heads wrapped around [security] issues as much as Homeland Security."

When asked if greater security would mean an increased number of surveillance cameras on the street, Ridge said the ultimate decision is a "local issue" but added that he personally is "willing to tolerate a certain number" of cameras if they improve public safety.

Gates demurred, joking that during his tenure at the CIA, "we spent a lot of years putting cameras where people didn't know where they were."