Monday, December 28, 2009

President Obama's Katrina Moment?

In my forthcoming book, Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather, I write extensively about what went wrong in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I have been thinking about the similarities between President Bush’s handling of Katrina and, so far, President Obama’s handling of the attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253.

First, some background:  I have spent my entire career researching and implementing appropriate responses to “low probability – high impact” events.  A major tornado is a low probability event at any given location and a terrorist attack is a low probability event for any given flight.  But, both will be catastrophic if the right systems are not in place to mitigate the threat.

Based in media reports that the attack on NWA 253 may be part of a larger problem (see here, here, and  here,   for just three examples), it seems that direct Presidential involvement in this situation is appropriate. Hundreds would have died on the Northwest flight if the bomb had detonated.  Hundreds would have been saved if the Bush Administration and local officials had acted appropriately in the immediate aftermath of Katrina.

Given the overwhelmingly negative response to the first President Bush’s handling of Hurricane Andrew and the overwhelmingly negative response to the second President Bush’s handling of Katrina, it would seem politically wise (not to mention consistent with the duties of the office) for President Obama to be personally and publicly involved in his Administration's response to NWA 253 and the additional threats, if any.

What are the comparisons I spoke of?

Presidential location during Katrina?  Bush was vacationing in Crawford.
Presidential location during NWA 253?  Obama vacationing in Hawaii.

Initial public involvement?  Bush:  None.  Obama:  None.

Administration point person?
Bush:  Michael Brown
Obama:  Janet Napolitano

Inappropriate statements by point person?
Napolitano:  "The system worked."

Counterproductive official response by point person?
Brown:  Sending rescuers to sexual harassment training rather than to New Orleans, and banning private sector assistance that was on the scene almost immediately.
Napolitano:  Banning using the restroom or reading a magazine 60 minutes before landing (more here) and making passengers (who were the "first responders" in NWA 253) stay in their seats, belts fastened, 60 minutes before landing under threat of arrest.

Just like President Bush was blamed for Michael Brown's actions, President Obama will be held accountable for the actions of his administration, for better or for worse.

Were I advising President Obama, I would suggest that he make a statement regarding the specific steps his administration is taking to investigate this attack and minimize the likelihood of additional attacks while, at the same time, working to balance the needs of security versus common sense (a grandmother from Grand Forks reading a magazine 30 minutes before landing is a threat?) and re-evaluating the new rules as quickly as possible.

Punishing passengers (who were the heroes, along with the flight attendants) of NWA 253 makes as much sense as sending trained rescuers to Atlanta for sexual harassment training.

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