Chairman Connolly's Remarks
Sept. 11, 2005
Today, all over this country, groups are gathering in gardens like this, around memorials, in churches, synagogues and mosques or simply across the family table, pausing from the daily business of life to honor the memories of the men and women who gave their lives on September 11, 2001, and their families, some of whom are with us here today.
Who are these first responders? Foremost, of course, they are the men and women of the fire and rescue, police and sheriff’s departments throughout our nation, so many of whom answered the call on 9/11 and again when the levees broke in New Orleans last week. They are the fathers and mothers, the daughters and sons, who put on their uniforms, say goodbye to their families and report for the duty of protecting our families every day. They are the men and women who were climbing the twin towers when they collapsed; who answered the call when the plane hit the Pentagon; who flew the helicopters above the flood waters; who dangled from cables to reach stranded flood victims as we watched in horror from the safety of our living rooms.
First responders, though, are many other things. We encounter them in our personal medical emergencies or if we need help properly installing a car seat. They are the folks collecting soda cans for burn victims, coaching little league teams in an effort to build stronger bonds with our children, or speaking at PTA meetings about how to recognize gang activity. They supervise inmate clean-up crews, hold bike-safety rodeos and go door-to-door offering to inspect and replace smoke detectors.
Often our “first responders” don’t wear public safety uniforms. They are the nurses who distributed medication when postal workers were exposed to anthrax; they are the inspectors checking to ensure storm water facilities are clear and safe; the health inspectors who visit restaurants to stop epidemic disease before it starts; or the teacher who first noticed the signs of a learning disability in your child. They drive the snow plows and the solid waste trucks and the school buses. Because they work, our community works. They are, in short, the heart of local government and all too often we take them for granted.
Perhaps on this day more than any other, a date that will forever be associated in our national consciousness with the threat of terrorism made real, we need to remind ourselves that Homeland Security is not just about terrorism. It is about security at home. Security from natural disasters, from crime, from disease. It is about local government’s most sacred charge – keeping our families safe. It is a noble mission, local government.
The response to Hurricane Katrina underscores the need for investment in solid infrastructure and in our first responders. The scenes on our television screens this past week are a stark reminder of what can go wrong when we fail to support the people who support us. We watched what can happen when the framework of local government is suddenly quite literally swept away.
This week, once more, we have felt how very fragile is the buffer between civilization – safety, comfort, good health – and anarchy, where desperation, disease and misery hold sway. Those pictures from New Orleans and from Jefferson Parrish are the grim answer to those who ask why we need local government at all. They tell us what life would be like if you and I wavered on our commitment to a sound infrastructure, to the protection of the health and safety of our citizens. They are the chilling reminder of where we could find ourselves without the men and women of our public safety departments: who would fly those helicopters, row the boats, reach out that arm and pull us to dry land?
I cannot fully articulate the enormous pride in their quiet heroism that all of us feel when we see our first responders answer the call as they did on Sept. 11, 2001 and as they are doing right now in the Gulf States. They are an affirmation for all of us of what is best in human nature. They say, “We care for each other; we reach out at our own peril so others will be saved.” Theirs are heroic acts, however humble or however grand. At those moments we can all feel we have a hand in this noble project, this society that reaches out its hand to a neighbor in need, not just at times of terrible tragedy, but every day in large ways and small. In honoring our first responders, we honor the best of us and we stand with them, proudly.