EARLY LESSONS IN NEW ORLEANS
by Dennis Smith, author of Report from Ground Zero

Again, the valiant women and men on the front lines of disaster have given us inspiration. But, what can we say of the leaders? The managers in New Orleans seem to have initially failed in reducing the human tragedy that Katrina has wrought, but the nurses, firefighters, police and emergency medical technicians performed heroically even as their own homes were inundated and their families were forced to flee. Nurses 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, firefighters and EMTs worked tirelessly without rest or nourishment for the first forty-eight hours, and continue on the job with little rest. The commitment of these first responders will be long remembered by Americans, particularly in juxtaposition to the mismanagement we have witnessed - the indecision and complete absence of alacrity within the management pools of local, state, and federal officials in charge. That leadership was needed in New Orleans is as obvious to the nation as a roadside billboard. The breakdown of emergency management has undoubtedly cost lives, and has saddened a nation.

There are reasons for this breakdown that have as much to do with good men making bad decisions as with the intensity of the storm.

Governor Tom Ridge as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security developed a policy of expenditure and planning that devoted about eighty per cent of the Department's resources to terrorism prevention programs, and about 20 per cent to mitigation preparedness. As an advisor to the Congressional Fire Services Institute I have been in countless meetings where this inequity of allocation was discussed in alarming terms, and the explanation seemed always to be that the law enforcement agencies have more clout with Congress and the White House than the fire organizations do in having their views heard.

In fairness, the focus of DHS on prevention is a policy that has undoubtedly worked in that 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 in the past days in the Gulf area. The cultural and economic vitality of our Jazz City is now no more, and may not ever be reconstituted as it was - devastation that illustrates how foolhardy is our policy of under-funding mitigation programs.

It doesn't take a career in emergency management to see that New Orleans knew what to expect in a level four hurricane. Everyone knew that the city is below sea level, and that it could be devastated by a storm surge. The most fundamental action in that exigency would be to deploy a flotilla of appropriate boats, and initiate a pre-planned communication system. People must be reassured in any emergency, and informed. To permit widespread ignorance of the facts is to court unrest and psychological desperation. And so the most fundamental concern in every life-threatening incident is to get the people to safety, and to reassure them. This is the same requirement in fires, tornados, volcano eruptions and earthquakes. Had the DHS given equal time to the mandates of mitigation each firehouse and police station and hospital in New Orleans would have had stockpiles of inflatable boats, small gasoline motors, and loudspeaker systems. Not all of New Orleans was under water, and many could have been brought immediately to dry ground.

In San Francisco in 1906, more than 200,000 people lost their homes to the fire, and the Army had tents for 100,000 of them placed in the city's parks in two days. The other 100,000 were given free transportation to anywhere they wanted to go. E.H. Harriman, the railroad magnate, paid the bill. Surely, in New Orleans a pre-plan for emergencies had been codified, but it did not work. With the support of DHS, that pre-plan would have included, besides the boats and raised emergency roadways, a viable evacuation system, temporary housing, and an appropriate communications system - the expensive stuff of pre-planning. A pre-planning event schedule would have anticipated success, and an adequate mitigation program funded by DHS would have assured it. But, in New Orleans, the most fundamental consideration of moving and calming the people in the midst of the emergency was not met, and disaster was fueled by more disaster.

There is a lot of political blame to go around, from President Clinton's refusal to back the Army Engineers' plan to build sea-gates in New Orleans's port entry in the late nineties, to President Bush's evident entropy in seeing the desperation of the situation until it was too late. It will be asked why Louisiana's Democratic governor did not ask the Republican President to declare Martial Law the first or even second day of the hurricane damage. Solid and successful leadership in terrible times usually makes this kind of criticism and Monday-morning quarterbacking unnecessary. Most people, rightly, point to Mayor Giuliani on 9-11 as a role model. But, New Orleans Mayor Ned Nagin did not have the same opportunity to speak to the nation as Rudy did, for he was surrounded by chaos, flood waters, and a complete ruination of the infrastructure - the anticipated consequences of crisis. Had televisions been working, and some roads opened, perhaps the people would have been reassured enough to have circumnavigated the opportunity for lawlessness.

Most American cities, large and small, have the same problems New Orleans has, and it is important for citizens to recognize that in emergencies things can go very bad very quickly. Problems become so large that we can only depend on government's help, but that does not lesson our individual responsibility in emergencies. We should learn about how they are managed, and why they are managed in particular ways. We must hold our elected leaders both responsible and accountable for crisis mitigation. Leadership is a quality that does not alone come from the ability to articulate before cameras, but mostly molded by an experience of success. In emergencies, a successful leadership may be shared, but there must be a recognized commander people can look to for solution and reassurance. In New Orleans, it is too late to put in place a forceful and recognized command structure that might have saved the day. But, it is not too late for the rest of America's cities to evaluate their pre-planning.

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