Tuesday, November 01, 2005

"A Civic Duty"

Those are the words of Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff, in describing the responsibility Americans have to prepare themselves--and their families--for a natural disaster. Chertoff made the comment Monday, in an interview with the Associated Press.

Chertoff's assertion is encouraging, but (unfortunately) it runs counter to the new disaster paradigm, created in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and more recently, Wilma's trek across southern Florida. The new paradigm suggests that it is the responsibility of the government (more specifically, the federal government) to meet your essential needs after a disaster. The Bush Administration was excoriated in the aftermath of Katrina for its supposedly "slow" response, and just last week, Florida governor Jeb Bush was criticized for its initial response to Wilma.

Bush, however, fired back at his critics, chiding Floridians for failing to prepare. State residents had more than a week to get ready for Wilma, but many failed to stockpile food and water for themselves--then complained when the state was slow to provide those staples.

Experts warn that it will take years to convince the public to develop personal disaster kits and plans. Rubbish. Here's a better idea: go back to the "old days" when the federal government provided only minimal aid to victims of natural disasters. Read accounts of genuine disasters from the nation's past (such as the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, or the Great Tri-State Tornado of 1925), and you'll see that the response effort was largely a state or local affair, with minimum assistance from Washington. And the amount of aid provided by state governments was also limited, meaning that individuals had to rely on themselves and their neighbors in recovering from a flood, earthquake, hurricane or tornado.

Too draconian, you say? How about this approach. Federal aid to a disaster area won't begin flowing to an area until 72-96 hours after the disaster, in keeping with FEMA's charter as a coordinating agency, not a first responder. During that period, the focus will be on rescue and assisting those who cannot help themselves. Healthy, able-bodied survivors will be on their own, except for MREs and bottled water that the National Guard can distrbute (at their discretion). Looting laws will be strictly enforced, so stealing is not a viable option.

Our forefathers survived calamities that were just as bad (if not worse) than the recent hurricanes, and they persevered with far fewer resources than we have today. Quite frankly, I think that my grandparents and great-grandparents would be embarassed by the whining in South Florida last week. Encouraging people to make their own disaster preparations is just common sense, but it will take more than "education campaigns" to make some people more dependent on themselves. As my late grandmother would say, folks like that need a "kick in the a--." Focusing the initial response on those who need it most might be just the nudge they need.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I don't think anyone would advocate abandoning the social safety net, particularly in times of crisis or disaster. But we have to do something to get people to prepare themselves for another large-scale natural disaster, or a terrorist-induced calamity, such as an anthrax attack. In that type of scenario, we might well see a breakdown in services, and people would be on their own for days, perhaps weeks. That's why we need to rekindle a sense of self-sufficiency among Americans and (unfortunately) limiting post-disaster help for the able-bodied seems to be one of the few viable options.