America???s large-scale disaster??? readiness has slipped into neutral

When 600,000 million lost electrical power in India, it was a major inconvenience. Americans are far more million technologically dependent. A blackout of that magnitude here would be an unmitigated disaster.

Horrendous wildfires burned a Colorado Springs neighborhood to the ground. A nuclear firestorm would fry an entire city.

An earthquake in Iran killed hundreds of people. A major quake along the New Madrid fault line could kill 100,000 and leave seven million people homeless.

This summer has offered many reminders of how vulnerable the modern world is to old-fashioned catastrophes. But few Americans are paying attention. Even fewer realize how little has been done over the last four years to prepare the country for the next big-scale disaster.

America???s post-9/11 emphasis on large-scale disaster preparedness has slipped back into neutral. Most troubling is how the Obama Administration has allowed U.S. military forces specifically trained, equipped and practiced to deal with the worst kinds of disaster to atrophy.

After 9/11, Washington took the threat of catastrophes seriously. The Pentagon stood up the US Northern Command (Northcom). It was specifically charged with coordinating large-scale military support in the event of major national disasters.

It was a controversial step. Our democratic tradition, codified in an 1878 law, expects the military to play a restrained role at home. The Posse Comitatus (???the power of the county???) Act reflected the tradition, that when a sheriff needed help enforcing the law, he would deputize his fellow civilians. And that was the point of the law: Civilians were supposed to enforce it. It outlawed using the military in domestic law enforcement so that politicians would be unable to use the military for political ends.

Northcom set up as a backstop

Northcom, however, was set up to backstop???not supplant???state and local emergency responses to a catastrophic event. By definition, a catastrophe puts thousands or tens of thousands of lives and billions of dollars in property at immediate risk???a situation that would overwhelm the civilian capacity to respond.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Americans saw how really important it was to have that kind of military capacity at hand. It was never a question of the military ???taking over.??? As Lieutenant General Russel L. Honoré, commander of U.S. forces during the response Katrina, wrote: ???For those of us on the active military side, this issue of dealing with state governments during disasters is almost like a dance. Do we lead or follow? In this sense the feds, especially the active military, are always the junior partner.??? After Katrina, the U.S. military stepped up planning to ensure adequate forces would be ready to respond more effectively to the next homeland disaster.

But during the last four years, many of those plans seem to have fallen apart.

The Pentagon had a program to help states draft disaster responses for major catastrophes. That program has lapsed.

The Bush administration had plans to develop federally integrated disaster planning for major disaster scenarios. That initiative was canned as well.

Then, in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon announced it was cutting back on the number of troops specifically prepared for homeland disasters.

All these cutbacks and false starts occurred before President Obama announced another ???peace dividend??? and before the Administration brokered additional defense cuts???to take effect automatically???over the next 10 years. These budget reductions will bleed our military???s disaster response capacity even further.

???Limited operational readiness???

A forthcoming report by Paul McHale, a former Assistant Secretary for Homeland Defense in the Pentagon, flatly concludes that the president doesn???t have enough federal forces to deal with a large-scale, complex disaster. The report finds that the ???flawed policies embodied in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review have left Northern Command with inadequate capacity: an insufficient number of personnel, without the necessary training, possessing very limited operational readiness.??? It is a stunning rebuke of four years of backtracking on providing for the common defense.

Even without the threat of automatic defense budget cuts, the U.S. military will have a tough time maintaining its readiness to fulfill its core missions at home and abroad. In particular, the Army and Air Force National Guards, which are the backbone of response for domestic disasters, face daunting challenges???recovering from multiple deployments, repairing and updating equipment, backing up the active force, and being ready to react here at home.

If America isn???t ready for the next major catastrophe, it is because we have been spending four years getting unready. And that may be just the start of the downhill slide.