Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Make Plans, Not Corpses

Nature can make a disaster; only humans have the hubris to turn it into a tragedy. And humans can, with careful thought, prevent tragedies.

These days I work in Disaster Recovery, so I took a professional as well as personal interest in the effects of rotten planning on the multistage Katrina tragedy. FEMA responded with too little, too late, but that was only one problem. The cutting of budgets and the unrealistic evacuation planning were major factors in the catastrophe.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Are people fools to live in a city that’s below sea level? Possibly, but name another port that isn’t subject to some kind of natural disaster: hurricanes, blizzards, tsunamis, wildfires, mudslides, floods, earthquakes, even volcanoes. (Think New York City, Chicago, Galveston, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Saint Louis, San Francisco, Seattle.) The blissful climate of Northern California contends with occasional shattering earthquakes. The scorching heat and tooth-aching cold of Chicago are their own type of natural disaster: yes, people die in heat waves and in ice storms and in blizzards. Inland cities deal with tornadoes and earthquakes and thunderstorms and floods.

There is no safe place to live, only safe ways to live.

Don’t believe me? Check out this map.

Buffalo, NY, deals nonchalantly with weather that would paralyze Fort Lauderdale. Big snowstorms are mopped up with speed, and kids don’t get many snow days from schools. Likewise, San Francisco is probably the safest place in the United States to go through a huge earthquake. That’s because SF is prepared for earthquakes: roads and buildings are constructed to code, people bolt heavy furniture to walls, factories and office buildings all have earthquake supplies. But an inch of snow would leave thousands stranded, and the annual heat wave leaves people panting and wretched. Nobody knows how to drive in snow, and very few people in the city have air conditioning.

A quarter of the Netherlands is below sea level. The country maintains its 1500 miles of dikes for the sake of the economic advantage for the nation as a whole. New Orleans is a major port and the source of a significant percentage of the oil refining for this nation (a fact our wallets have been proclaiming for the past week or so). Compared to the billions it will take to recover from the disaster, the hundreds of millions that could have prevented it are a pittance.

It’s cheaper to plan wisely than to mop up afterwards. And clearly we cannot leave such planning to the government, given FEMA’s pitiable performance. But what do you expect when you hand over a government agency to people who explicitly state that they don’t believe in government?

1 comment:

Anton said...

Do the current Republicans still give lip service to the ideal of small government, while denying any effective limits on its powers?