In New Orleans, nurses, firefighters, police and EMTs stayed on the job even as their own homes were inundated by Hurricane Katrina and their families were forced to flee.
I am inspired by those who gave of themselves so generously. There were nurses who stood by their critical patients in the midst of armed looters roaming hospital corridors. One policeman was shot in the head while trying to stop looting. Most firefighters and EMTs worked tirelessly without rest or nourishment for the first 48 hours. The commitment of these first responders will be long remembered by Americans, particularly in contrast to the mismanagement we have witnessed: the breakdown of emergency services that has undoubtedly cost lives.
There are reasons for this breakdown that have as much to do with good people making bad decisions as with the intensity of the storm.
Tom Ridge, as homeland security secretary, developed a policy of expenditure and planning that devoted about 80% of the department's resources to terrorism prevention, and about 20% to mitigation - better known as preparedness.
The focus of Homeland Security on prevention is a policy that has undoubtedly worked - we have not had a major terrorist attack within our borders since 9/11. But the fact that mitigation is a crucial element of homeland security, one that cries out for equal footing with prevention, has come home to roost.
New Orleans knew what to expect in a Category 4 hurricane. Officials knew that the city was below sea level and that it could be devastated by a storm surge. The most fundamental action would have been to deploy a flotilla of boats and initiate a preplanned communication system. People must be reassured in any emergency, and informed. To permit widespread ignorance of the facts is to court unrest. If the feds had given equal time to mitigation, each firehouse and police station and hospital in New Orleans would have had stockpiles of inflatable boats, small gasoline motors and loudspeaker systems.
There is a lot of political blame to go around, from former President Bill Clinton's refusal to back the Army Corps of Engineers' plan to build sea gates in New Orleans' port in the 1990s, to President Bush's evident entropy in seeing the desperation of the situation much too late. Solid and successful leadership in terrible times usually makes this kind of criticism and Monday-morning quarterbacking unnecessary.
Most American cities have the same problems suffered by New Orleans. We must hold our elected leaders responsible for crisis mitigation. Leadership is a quality that does not come solely from the ability to articulate before cameras, but mostly molded by an experience of success. All emergencies require a visible commander and in New Orleans it is not too late to put in place a forceful and recognized command structure.
And it is not too late for the rest of America's cities to immediately evaluate their preplanning.
Smith is a retired New York City firefighter. His latest book, "San Francisco is Burning," will be published next month.