In response to an Instapundit blog post about the things we've learned from Katrina, a reader posited a very important question:
I haven't heard anything about the Emergency Alert System in relation to Katrina. Was it on? Did it work? Did it provide any useful information? I would think that a system that's been tested weekly since the 50's would have been pretty reliable.
According to the FCC's Web site on the subject, the EAS can broadcast an emergency message on all AM, FM and broadcast TV stations and on any cable system with more than 10,000 subscribers. The EAS was developed so that the president could directly communicate with the nation in the event of a national crisis, but since 1963, the system is authorized for local and state use as well.
Thus the question: Was the EAS activated?
I've actually heard people interviewed who claimed they weren't aware of the impending danger of Hurricane Katrina. I find that difficult to believe. On the other hand, plenty of people can't tell you who the vice president is, so it's entirely possible to live in an information vacuum, even in the information age.
Here in Birmingham, our civil defense siren system is activated for tornado warnings. However, if you cannot hear the siren and (A) do not have a weather radio that can be activated by the National Weather Service or (B) are not tuned in to local TV, you could very well be unaware that a tornado is approaching. If you're watching MTV or The Golf Channel, you will miss the warning unless your cable provider interrupts the broadcast or scrolls a message across the screen.
Seems to me that if we're spending money on the EAS, then every time an event such as a tornado or hurricane threatens public health and safety, the EAS should activate and transmit a message across all radio, TV and cable signals.
Our local meterologists constantly preach on the necessity of a weather radio with an alert feature so that you can be warned of severe weather at night during sleep. (Weather radios can be activated for civil emergencies as well.) But for those who aren't plugged in to NOAA or the local news, "we interrupt this broadcast" ought to become a familiar phrase.