Everybody has a Sept. 11 story.
David Porter ’97 remembers watching the Twin Towers come down with other attorneys in the offices of their Grand Rapids, Mich., law firm. “People were angry and felt helpless, and I had those feelings, too. But I also felt, ‘I’m here making a good living doing something that I enjoy, but I have a debt to repay. I should be in that world.’”
That would be the world of national intelligence and domestic security. Porter said he had been “flirting” with that world ever since college. He received, but declined, an appointment to the Air Force’s officer training school. During law school he looked again at joining the military, the FBI or the CIA. Nothing seemed a right fit, so he went home to Grand Rapids to practice law and start a family.
“But I still had the bug,” he said.
A year later, when the World Trade Center towers fell, he began to search in earnest for his place in the world of national and domestic security. Finding the right fit was more difficult with a wife and three small children. But after three years of “a lot of hard work and some divine intervention,” Porter was offered the position of legal counsel to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
His first day on the job was Aug. 29, 2005 — the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall. Porter found himself caught up in a whirlwind, too. The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is the Senate’s main oversight committee with respect to government agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the network of homeland security operations established after Sept. 11.
“Katrina was the first serious test in real time of the national response plan drafted after 9/11,” Porter said. “Obviously, some things went drastically wrong.”
Porter is part of the team investigating what went wrong, how it went wrong and why. He has spent most of his time since early September in the Gulf region, walking the levees and the streets of the lower Ninth Ward, interviewing local government officials, emergency responders and survivors. “We’re trying to put together a big picture of what happened when, and of how the emergency operations offices functioned and did not function together,” he said.
Sometime in the spring the committee will deliver its report to Congress, including possible recommendations on how the homeland security apparatus as a whole may need to be changed. The report, and the investigative work behind it, Porter explained, has importance far beyond the next hurricane.
“The same wheels are supposed to turn regardless of whether the disaster is a Gulf Coast hurricane or an earthquake in San Francisco or a dirty bomb set off in a Manhattan subway. At the end of the day the work this committee does and what happens as a result of it will save lives.”
Just what David Porter has wanted to do since Sept. 11.
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