Napolitano's first real test as the nation's chief security officer came with the swine flu outbreak in March. She oversaw tracking of the flu's spread across the border from Mexico and coordinated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Labor, and Education. Officials from the CDC and the World Health Organization may have received more face time on television, but Napolitano was at the center of the government's response. "We were very clear on the message," she says. "Rely on science; communicate regularly what we know and what we don't know."
The response to the initial flu outbreak (it's still in several countries, and experts predict that it will return in full force to the United States in the winter) received generally high marks from security and public-health experts. "She was able to step up and focus on the swine flu rather than fight the interagency turf wars that emerge during high-profile events," says Daniel Kaniewski, who served as President Bush's special assistant for homeland security. Kaniewski added that the adept handling of the outbreak was also helped by a critical presidential directive, issued in late February, that placed DHS in charge of the national incident management system. It was a little-noticed power shift to DHS that is likely to streamline the response to future national crises.
But for DHS to be truly organized, the agencies within it need to be in one place. This month, the government began the initial stages of converting St. Elizabeth's, a former mental hospital in the southern part of Washington, into a massive campus that will house many of the DHS-affiliated agencies. It will rival the Pentagon as one of the largest government complexes in the area. And although Napolitano will oversee some of the consolidation of the offices, since the complex won't be ready until 2016, it won't ease her commute anytime soon.