Wednesday, May 31, 2006

What a Novel Concept

With hurricane season upon us, states along the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard are adopting a novel approach to storm preparation, preaching the virtures of self-reliance and personal readiness. Today's edition of The New York Times reports that personal preparedness has become the new buzzword in hurricane-prone areas. A number of coastal states have launched media campaigns, reminding citizens of the need to take responsibility for their own preparations.

The need for such reminders is regrettable, but obviously necessary. In the aftermath of Katrina last year, it was obvious that many survivors had not taken the necessary preparations for survival after the storm, and they expected the government and private charities to provide literally literally everything. And, more than a few became angry when FEMA failed to show up on therr doorstep the morning after the storm, with ice, water, chainsaws and keys to a rental house or apartment in hand. Obviously, the magnitude of the storm was overwhelming, and many residents were not prepared for the devastation that occurred in New Orleans and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. But that doesn't excuse (or eliminate) the need for individual preparations.

If there's a "hidden blessing" in last year's hurricane season, it would be value of personal responsibility and individual preparation before the next storm--a requirement that should have been stressed from Day One. Have those lessons been absorbed? The Times article cites a recent Mason-Dixon poll which revealed that most coastal residents have taken no steps to fortify their homes, most don't have emergency supplies stockpiled, and most don't have a personal survival or evacuation plan. These are likely the same folks who believe that a revamped FEMA and state agencies will be more efficient in delivering assistance after future storms. And when that doesn't happen, they will be happy to tell the nearest TV news crew that the government has "abandoned" them.

The results of that survey beg some obvious questions. In a post-Katrina world, if residents have been warned to prepare for hurricanes (and fail to take the necessary precautions), what do we owe them, in terms of assistance after the storm? While most Americans have nothing but sympathy for the victims of a major hurricane, there is a growing sense of frustration about residents and home owners who fail to prepare themselves for the storm, particularly when they have the means to take basic precautions.

Of course, it's hard to gauge levels of individual preparation, and there isn't a politician alive who would deny post-storm assistance to someone who didn't have a personal survival kit, or an emergency evacuation plan. But, as we learned after Katrina, the American people have finite patience for bureaucratic incompetence after a storm. Now comes the sticky question of what we owe to people who refuse to to assume any degree of responsibility for themselves and their families. As the state of Florida recently discovered, you can hold a tax-free holiday and encourage people to stock up on storm supplies, but you can't make them walk into Home Depot or Lowe's and actually make those purchases.

Encouraging personal responsibility is both a welcome and novel approach for government, even at the state level. But ensuring some measure of individual compliance and preparation is a totally different matter. How do you make someone prepare for a storm? The obvious answer would be to deny or withhold certain types of assistance, unless the claimant can demonstrate a dire need. But that would take genuine political courage, something that's as hard to find as plywood in a home improvement store--the day before a Category IV storm churns ashore.

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