Remembering Katrina and 9/11: On data and the terror of nature and mankind

Are there data lessons to be learned from “natural

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We mark the first anniversary of the seemingly unavoidable 2005 Katrina hurricane “act of God” which terrorized New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and resulted in thousands of deaths and uncountable shattered lives and prepare to mark the fifth anniversary of the 2001 September 11 seemingly preventable terrorist attacks on New York City, Washington DC…which resulted in thousands of murders and uncountable shattered lives.

I personally lived the terror of the World Trade Center deadly attack. I was attending an Internet conference at a technology hub neighboring the World Trade Center during the early morning of that fateful September 11. During a presenters’ discussion of Web-based business models, the conference room unexpectedly shook as if an earthquake had occurred. Jaded New Yorkers all, we paid scant attention at first; however, we soon learned the gravity of the situation.

I literally had to run for my life through the narrow streets of Downtown Manhattan, with what seemed to be a tornado of deadly, billowing smoke at my back. My gut reaction was that invading army tanks were on a path of war. Fellow New Yorkers were screaming and running, but where to? As the smoke got denser and an unkown dust fell endlessly from the sky to envelope us all, it was increasingly difficult to see and breath. And what about the “tanks”? Survival instincts led me to run towards the East River. Once there, I contemplated jumping in.

As thousands of dust covered fellow “refugees” made there way along the river path by foot, to hopefully reach a less dangerous place uptown, I joined the solemn but determined parade to safety.

I was not subject to hurricane Katrina’s wrath, but did emotionally feel for New Orleans and the region. As I have had the good fortune of celebrating my wedding anniversary over the past several years in New Orleans and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the images of the region underwater and its people suffering were painful.

Are there data lessons to be learned from “natural” and “human-induced” disasters? While weather can not be prevented and murderous desires can not be dampened, the potential deadly impact of both can be mitigated.

9/11: “THE MOST IMPORTANT FAILURE WAS ONE OF IMAGINATION”

According to The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, data implications are threefold: 1) lack of exploitation of available data, 2) lack of coordination of available data and 3) not obtaining sufficient data.

Excerpts of the executive summary of the 2004 “Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States”:

The 9/11 attacks were a shock, but they should not have come as a surprise. Islamist extremists had given plenty of warning that they meant to kill Americans indiscriminately and in large numbers. Although Usama Bin Ladin himself would not emerge as a signal threat until the late 1990s, the threat of Islamist terrorism grew over the decade…

The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were far more elaborate, precise, and destructive than any of these earlier assaults. But by September 2001, the executive branch of the U.S. government, the Congress, the news media, and the American public had received clear warning that Islamist terrorists meant to kill Americans in high numbers…

We write with the benefit and handicap of hindsight. We are mindful of the danger of being unjust to men and women who made choices in conditions of uncertainty and in circumstances over which they often had little control.

Nonetheless, there were specific points of vulnerability in the plot and opportunities to disrupt it. Operational failures-opportunities that were not or could not be exploited by the organizations and systems of that time-included

• not watchlisting future hijackers Hazmi and Mihdhar, not trailing them after they traveled to Bangkok, and not informing the FBI about one future hijacker's U.S. visa or his companion's travel to the United States;
• not sharing information linking individuals in the Cole attack to Mihdhar;
• not taking adequate steps in time to find Mihdhar or Hazmi in the United States;
• not linking the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui, described as interested in flight training for the purpose of using an airplane in a terrorist act, to the heightened indications of attack;
• not discovering false statements on visa applications;
• not recognizing passports manipulated in a fraudulent manner;
• not expanding no-fly lists to include names from terrorist watchlists;
• not searching airline passengers identified by the computer-based CAPPS screening system; and
• not hardening aircraft cockpit doors or taking other measures to prepare for the possibility of suicide hijackings.

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Since the plotters were flexible and resourceful, we cannot know whether any single step or series of steps would have defeated them. What we can say with confidence is that none of the measures adopted by the U.S. government from 1998 to 2001 disturbed or even delayed the progress of the al Qaeda plot. Across the government, there were failures of imagination, policy, capabilities, and management.

Katrina: “PRIMARILY A FAILURE OF INITIATIVE”

According to the Final Report of the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina, data implications are also threefold: 1) lack of exploitation of available data, 2) lack of coordination of available data and 3) not acting on available data.

Excerpts of the Executive Summary and Conclusion of “Congressional Reports: H. Rpt. 109-377 – A Failure of Initiative”:

The preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina show we are still an analog government in a digital age. We must recognize that we are woefully incapable of storing, moving, and accessing information—especially in times of crisis…

The federal government is the largest purchaser of information technology in the world, by far. One would think we could share information by now. But Katrina again proved we cannot…

Both imagination and initiative—in other words, leadership—require good information. And a coordinated process for sharing it. And a willingness to use information—however imperfect or incomplete—to fuel action…

We are left scratching our heads at the range of inefficiency and ineffectiveness that characterized government behavior right before and after this storm. But passivity did the most damage. The failure of initiative cost lives, prolonged suffering, and left all Americans justifiably concerned our government is no better prepared to protect its people than it was before 9/11, even if we are.

The report asks us to ponder:

How can we set up a system to protect against passivity? Why do we repeatedly seem out of synch in disasters? Why do we continually seem to be one disaster behind?”

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