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How Natural Disasters Make Major Cities Vulnerable To National Security Threats


Hurricane Irma is just one of the many natural disasters that have hit North America in just the past few weeks. Houston residents continue to try to recover from Hurricane Harvey. At the same time, wildfires are burning thousands of acres in the West. And just a few days ago, Mexico experienced its largest earthquake in a century, a magnitude 8.1 on the Richter scale.

Now there's no argument about the fact that such disasters can have a devastating effect on individuals and cities, but analysts are starting to become more vocal about the fact that they can also have an impact on national security. We wanted to hear more about that, so we called Michael Masters. He's senior vice president of the security intelligence firm The Soufan Group. We reached him at his office in Chicago. Michael Masters, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MICHAEL MASTERS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So your group usually focuses on terrorism threats like al-Qaida or ISIS, so this report about extreme weather caught our attention. Is this really something that you consider as much of a threat as some of these other national security issues that most people are familiar with?

MASTERS: In short, it is. First of all, within the United States, natural disasters and weather conditions are undoubtedly the most prevalent threat faced by government, the private sector and residents, as we're seeing right at the current time. It is requiring us to change how we look at our operating environments, the types of missions that we're undertaking, as well as the role that the United States plays and our civilian, law enforcement and military assets play in addressing threats both domestic and internationally.

MARTIN: So yeah, I think most people think of natural disasters as a regional threat, and you're arguing that it is at the national level. Why is that?

MASTERS: It has been a fact of life that our Quadrennial Defense Review, the Department of Defense's report that they do on their upcoming strategy in both 2010 and 2014 pointed out climate change is a very real issue. It's changing the way that we look at our missions, both overseas, as well as the threats that we might face, that instability encouraging not only strife but potentially terrorist activity and, of course, impacting how we train and supply our own troops. Think about the supply routes and the training facilities that exist. Over 30 United States military facilities at this time have been impacted by rising sea levels, and that number is likely to go up.

MARTIN: Well, so let's talk about climate change for a minute in the national security context. I mean, you point out that the United States really is the only major country, let's say, where human-induced climate change is considered still politically contentious. But I'm wondering, do security analysts like yourself, as a group, understand human-induced climate change to be a national security threat?

MASTERS: Well, I don't want to speak for everyone, but I think if we go to the facts, since at least 1990, when the Naval War College first identified the global implications of climate change, it's been an issue of focus. Since just 2010, the Department of Defense has published approximately 35 products that explicitly address the threat of climate change. And in that same period, other elements of the intelligence community published at least 14 products on the topic. So there is no doubt that regardless of the politics of the situation, if we look around the world, we can see that weather patterns are changing. There are increases in greenhouse gases. Sea levels are rising. Global temperatures are increasing. And severe weather patterns are accelerating.

MARTIN: Do you think that our current national security posture toward natural disasters needs to be revisited, and if so, in what way?

MASTERS: If we examine the infrastructure just in Florida right now, it is estimated that there is approximately $17 billion worth of upgrades that need to take place within that state just to maintain Florida's existing drinking water systems. And if you then go more broadly around the country, accord to our best civil engineers, the country as a whole gets no better than a D grade in how our critical infrastructure is set to address the future. We are in a phase where we have outlived the useful life of much of our infrastructure and have put off maintenance of that in many, many ways. And when they are impacted by disasters, in our best moments, disasters can greatly impact our day-to-day routine and our lives.

Right now, we have thousands of police officers, thousands of civilian responders and Defense Department elements that are working to address hurricane conditions across the southern part of the United States and wildfires across California before, unfortunately, they, themselves, are impacted in terms of their bandwidth by being able to continue operations. We need to do a better job of supporting them and supporting our fellow citizens in ensuring that our systems, our infrastructure, is well-equipped to handle the security threats that we now face.

MARTIN: That was Michael Masters, senior vice president of the security intelligence firm The Soufan Group. We reached him in Chicago. Michael Masters, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MASTERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.