No one knows why every thirty years or so the waters of the north Atlantic become warmer than the waters of the southern, but the consequence of this phenomenon in geologic history has never been felt more profoundly than today as we suffer through the ruination of large parts of our gulf states. The warm waters provide the most fertile breeding ground for the creation of hurricanes, making the storms fiercer and the probability compounded. It is frightening to realize that we are in the beginning weeks of a hurricane season elongated by the warmth of the ocean water. The storm could not have been more brutal.
But, wait a minute. It certainly could have been more brutal, for nature cannot be measured in emotional tones. Indeed, because we know so little about geologic time, we cannot even measure nature in historical terms. We can only say that this is perhaps the worst storm we have ever experienced in America's little more than 500 years of observed and recorded history - a micro-second in our geologic time clock.
Even before the victims have been recovered the airwaves are filled with cries from indignant pundits calling for the resignations of FEMA director Brown and DHS Secretary Chertoff, and anyone else found culpable in the wanton lassitude that was brought forth by the federal, state, and city government in meeting the crisis. Brown has been recalled, a measure I thought insensitive in the midst of agony, but now I am not so certain. I suddenly remembered a few frightening antecedents that have led me to believe that sometimes prudence trumps decency. If it is indecent to point fingers in tragedy, before the months-long investigations that are sure to come, then we have no choice but to be deliberate and cold in our observations.
There is no time to consider the outcome of long investigations. Or, at least, we must recognize that there might not be time to swim through the murky waters of inquiries, righteous grandstanding, p.r. machinations, and political balancing acts. There very well could be another level five hurricane formed tomorrow, or a 9.0 earthquake in San Francisco tonight, or a volcano explosion in Yellowstone Park just weeks away - an explosion that could leave much of the world in darkness for months. Nature has no protocol with a timeline.
Take the New Madrid earthquake of December 1811, estimated to be the most severe earthquake in American records. It did much damage to the Mississippi Valley and over one million square miles were affected. The Mississippi changed course, boats were overturned in rivers, people drowned, whole islands disappeared, and tremors were felt as far away as New York. It is now estimated to be somewhere between and 8 and a 9 magnitude earthquake. But, then, just one month later in January 1812 and to everyone's surprise, another earthquake occurred in the same place with the same magnitude. More great destruction came to an area where ten thousand people lived in 1812, and about ten million people live today.
Also, events can happen in a far part of the world and cause havoc in the United States. The 9.5 earthquake in Chile on May 22, 1960, that left over two million homeless, and killed more than 2000, also sent a tsunami to Hawaii were it killed 61 and to Japan where it killed 138 and created $50 million in damage.
We must continue to point fingers even while we are bent with pain, for we will never have a better opportunity to get our citizens and business leaders to realize that we are, in my opinion, on the wrong track in managing emergency crises in America. Lives and property are not in the best of hands, for we give people authority to manage who have no business being at the incident command post. In San Francisco, for instance, the Mayor has the codified management command in the event of a serious earthquake. In many emergency organizations, the management positions are filled by politicians to pay back friends and campaign workers who are usually lawyers when the positions are designed for first responders, or people who have spent their entire careers knowing how to place the lives of their personnel in jeopardy, and how to go about molding chaos into a manageable event. All leadership should be borne by people who have spent their lives in crisis mitigation. They are the people in whom we should place our confidence, for experience has shown that solid and successful leadership in terrible times makes this kind of criticism and Monday-morning quarterbacking unnecessary.
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. They gave (except for a very few police) a courageous and commendable performance, one that should be remembered longer than that of their superiors in government.
We need leadership that will protect us in emergencies. Rudy Giuliani's success in calming the country on 9-11 was not a success in mitigating the ruination. The fire and police chiefs did that. Mayors and governors should not be calling the shots as they did in Louisiana. The managing of disasters and emergencies is not like running a war where generals have time to strategize in consultation with a president. In emergencies one minute's time can determine the success or failure of a decision, and we must demand that the person making that decision is adequate to the role.
That New Orleans failed in crisis management has a lot to do with former DHS Secretary Tom Ridge's 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, we can see now how mitigation must be a fundamental element of homeland security, one that cries out for equal footing with prevention . This should be the number one discussion point among thoughtful people who are responsible for running the business of America.
But, the real problem in emergency management in America is caused by our Senators and Congresspersons who freely accept the political payoffs when it comes to appointing the heads of emergency organizations. They should take their Advise and Consent role more seriously and consider to run DHS, FEMA and the other organizations charged with our safety only those who have spent their professional lives as first responders. Most heads of our emergency organizations are lawyers, because it is the lawyer class that gets the paybacks born of successful political campaigns.
The greatest leadership I have ever seen was on 9-11 when New York's current Fire Chief, Peter Hayden, stood for hours on end on top of a fire truck and led several thousand in the search for survivors and the recovery of bodies. To lead 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, like Hayden on that truck, and not a front man at the mike. This rule has been tragically reinforced by New Orleans.
Still, it is not too late for every American city to immediately evaluate its preplanning before nature or terrorists inflict more suffering upon us. Every city must insure that its leading incident commander has spent his or her entire career in saving lives. And, too, the Congress and Senate ought to be held accountable for approving people who will be making decisions in emergencies. And, except in rare cases, forget the lawyers.
Smith is a retired New York City firefighter. His latest book, "San Francisco is Burning," will be published next month.