Video: Disaster leadership
updated 9/7/2005 11:24:13 AM ET 2005-09-07T15:24:13

Tuesday on 'Hardball,' three men familiar with disaster preparedness joined MSNBC's Chris Matthews to discuss leadership and the what steps can be taken in advance of events such as Hurricane Katrina.

Appearing on the show were former New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir, live just outside of New Orleans back in the 1970s, Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston, S.C., who saw his city battered by Hurricanes Hugo and Floyd, and Eric Holdeman is the director of emergency services for King County, Wash.

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Gentlemen, when I grew up, I had a sense in the City of Philadelphia -- and I knew this was true of other big cities, like New York and Chicago and L.A. - (that) when there was a five-alarm fire, the mayor was in the streets standing next to the police and the fire commissioners.  You knew who was in charge.  You had a sense, almost like in a comic book, of who the boss was.  He was standing there in his trench coat.  He took the heat.  He gave the orders.

Do we need something like that, Mr. Safir, in situations like New Orleans? 

HOWARD SAFIR, FORMER NEW YORK CITY POLICE COMMISSIONER:  Absolutely.  If this had happened in New York, Rudy Giuliani and I would have been standing side by side in the middle of the street directing recovery and rescue operations. 

But, you know, there's a lot of blame to go around here.  Certainly, New Orleans did not have an adequate emergency response plan.  I look at all those buses that are underwater in New Orleans and I wonder, how come, with plenty of warning, they weren't staged in a dry area, where they could get in and get people out of that city?

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, Mr. Holdeman.  The question is communications, relationships among state, federal and local.  Do you still need one person to be calling the shots on the


And it's called the incident commander.  It's specified by a new incident management system, one of the good things that has come out of the Department of Homeland Security.  But the fix is not at the local level that's needed.  The fix is really having FEMA be restored to its national prominence as a Cabinet agency, independent and separate from the Department of Homeland Security. 

MATTHEWS:  Why did they downgrade it to a level where someone like Michael Brown would be the head of FEMA, instead of a Cabinet-level person? 

HOLDEMAN:  Well, I will tell you, we have only had one Federal Emergency Management director for FEMA.  And that's James Lee Witt.  Typically, it has been relegated to a political appointee ... you could predict this type of performance with a single focus on terrorism and not an all-hazards approach towards the earthquakes, hurricanes, storms, volcanic eruptions, storms, all those types of hazards that can happen anywhere in the nation and are more frequent than terrorism, although we have to pay attention to terrorism, also. 

MATTHEWS:  Eric, you said there's one person in charge under the bureaucratic relationships.  His name -- it's called the incident director? 

HOLDEMAN:  The incident commander. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, who is that now?  Who in charge in New Orleans right now?  Because we haven't met him yet. 


The incident commander should be on scene at the various sites.  Then there's an emergency operations center for both a city.  There's an emergency operation center for a county, for the state, and then a federal coordinating center providing and funneling resource.  There is an emergency management system.  But, as we can see, that broke down radically.

And I think it became an issue because of inadequate preparations for what was a Cat 5 storm.  And you could see it coming. 

MATTHEWS:  Mayor Riley, how do we improve our response for next time? 

JOE RILEY, MAYOR OF CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA:  There needs to be a responsibility in the national government in a military unit -- I believe the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- for the immediate urgent situation. 

This isn't a 5-alarm fire.  It's a three-state, huge natural disaster.  And there should be a general in charge, sees a hurricane coming, says, get the tankers ready.  Get the planes ready.  Get the National Guard ready.  Fill up the tankers. Get the water buffaloes.  Send this equipment in.  It was predictable, what was going to happen.  And that is what is needed.  Until there is the emergency situation like that, we will not be ready for natural disasters. 

There's a time when the baton can be passed to the rebuilding and to the paperwork and all of that.  But when you are faced with a hurricane aiming at the coast of America, we need in the military somebody in charge where the buck stops that can send the resources, that can protect these communities for that emergency, urgent time right after the disaster hits, when the bridges are out, when the water is gone, when the sewers don't work, when the power line is gone. 

It's like you have been bombed.  And that's what you need, someone in charge with the capacity and with the resources.  We do not have that.  And, if we don't have it with a hurricane that we know is out there, heaven forbid what will happen when there's a terrorist attack.  Our country is not ready and we need that immediate response in a division of the military where the responsibility is and where the buck stops. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, Howard Safir, the big question.  Should the president have a person of high prestige and command ability, almost like a young Douglas MacArthur or a younger, perhaps, Colin Powell -- I don't want to knock him -- he might be the right guy-- who stands ready to take charge in these tragic situations?  Or should he pick them on the spot, like right now pick somebody? 

SAFIR:  Well, he should probably pick somebody right now. 

But the mayor is absolutely right.  This requires a coordinated city, state and local response.  There was bad planning here.  But the military has thousands of assets stationed all over this country.  There should have been a military response immediately that would have got there the day of the hurricane, as soon as the winds stopped blowing, so that these people wouldn't spend four or five days on roofs. 

HOLDEMAN:  Yes.  I'm a retired infantry officer, 20 years in the military, and also did military support, civil authorities planning at the Army level. 

And the military responds to civilian orders and requests.  They aren't going to be in charge.  The issue is, they have to be given the warning order to be ready ... so they can pre-stage and have people and systems in place in order to do what they do really well.  And now we're seeing them done. 

That warning order was not issued to them soon enough.  But it's not a military person that gives that order. 

Watch 'Hardball' each weeknight at 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC. 

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