Lessons of New Orleans
by Dennis Smith

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, and even now storms are gathering to threaten us. Still, we are never out of danger from natural cataclysms. A tornado could hit the plains states this afternoon, a 9.0 earthquake could devastate San Francisco tonight, or a volcano explosion could occur in Yellowstone Park a week from now that could leave much of the world in darkness for months. Nature has no set timeline, cannot be predicted, prevented or controlled. We can only plan for inevitability, and New Orleans has shown as big as a billboard that we haven't been doing that very well.

We must continue to point fingers at those who might have been responsible for the failures in New Orleans even while we are bent with pain. We will never have a better opportunity to get our business and political leaders to realize that we are, in my opinion, on the wrong track in managing emergency crises in America.

We must demand two changes in government policy to secure our protection, for our lives and property are not in the best of hands. Why? For one thing we give people authority to manage emergencies who have no business being at the incident command post. In San Francisco, for instance, the Mayor has a codified management command in the event of a serious earthquake. In other cities and in many federal agencies and departments, emergency management positions are filled by politicians to pay back friends and campaign workers. These folks, like FEMA Director Michael Brown, are usually lawyers filling emergency leadership positions that would more prudently be filled by first responders - people who have spent their entire careers knowing how to place the lives of their personnel in jeopardy, and how to go about molding the chaos of a crisis into a manageable event. Only a record of solid and successful leadership in terrible times conveys the qualification we need in an emergency leader who might make a solid success of protecting our families, and friends, workers, and businesses.

In New Orleans, nurses, firefighters, police and EMTs stayed on the job as their homes were inundated by Katrina, and even as their families were forced to flee. We owe them our thanks and consideration. They gave (except for one contingent of police) a courageous and commendable performance, one that will be remembered with more appreciation than that of our leaders in government.

The US Congress and Senate have the responsibility at the Federal level to advise and consent on the appointments of those who lead our emergency organizations. They have been wanton in passing on the appointments of lawyers, retired generals, and senate aides to head our emergency departments - all men and women who have no first responding experience at all. It is as if the government has no respect for those who spend their lives being the first to arrive at every catastrophe to put their lives on the line to protect us.

In my own travels I have met hundreds of fire chiefs from coast to coast who are of extraordinary intelligence and experience. I would gladly place my children's and grandchildren's safety in their hands. Each one of them would have been successful in leading the Federal Emergency Management Agency through the crisis on our Gulf coast. Yet, our congresspersons and senators, as well as our local and state elected officials, almost always appoint persons without any emergency management experience to important emergency positions - a sort of Russian-roulette pork-barrel politics. It is a sinful policy, and we must find a way to stop it.

The second government policy that must end is the Department of Homeland Security's policy of investing considerably more in terrorism prevention that in emergency preparedness. I believe that New Orleans, Louisiana, and FEMA failed in crisis management largely because of 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 emergency mitigation - better known as preparedness. The focus of Homeland Security on prevention, as far as it goes, 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 and disaster management has come home to roost, and it cries out for equal footing with prevention. America's business leaders should see this as a paramount consideration in planning for emergencies. As an example, had more money been spent on mitigation programs in New Orleans, hospitals would have been secure, firefighters would have had boats and motors stored in their firehouses, and police officers would have had an alternative mass communication program. The city had a 400 page emergency plan without adequate equipment or personnel reserves to call upon.

Most American cities have the same problems suffered by New Orleans, and each citizen in the Big Easy and all American cities must share some of the responsibility for this terrible death toll and social turmoil. We have elected our officials without thinking to demand of them that they protect us in emergencies.

Each emergency demands a trusted leader. The greatest leadership I have ever seen was on 9-11 when New York's current Fire Chief, Peter Hayden, stood 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. We need more visible commanders like Hayden, and not a front man at the mike.

It is time for every American city to 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. Our congressmen and senators ought to be made accountable for its advise and consent role in approving appointments of people who might save our lives, our property, and our futures. And, except in rare cases, forget the lawyers, the retired generals, and the senate aides.

Return to Home Page