No Fancy Name
Sunday, September 04, 2005
so much for not talking about Katrina
At JMP, a few people on opposite sides of the political spectrum are having a civil discussion. I know, be still all our hearts! But it's true, and it's possible. Michelle posted a short response to the sitution, after following links in my post yesterday. We're discussing, essentially, what it means to "protect," "prevent," and "respond" and the government's role in doing so.

I'm reprinting my initial comment below, then I'm following up after other people followed up in her comment thread. Basically, I'm just going to trackback ping my second comment because I've already filled up her comments with 500 words once, I don't need to do it again!

My First Comment, in context here:
First, please put me squarely in the camp of "differing opinions are great and dialogue is good and blah blah blah". So there's that.

I don't think it's a question of _protecting_ us from natural disasters, it's more like putting into place (and keeping in place) a regulatory/procedural/whatever infrastructure that -- as a government function -- can spring into action when disasters hit (natural or unnatural), and pull together all the bureaucratic details to help affected people. For instance, overseeing the coordination of intra/inter state agencies and local government.

I'm not comfortable with that oversight position being given to a private company; I'd rather it be a federal agency which is (through an admittedly convoluted path of appointments and what not) ultimately beholden to the people through a democratic process. I agree that "mass preparation" often results in a lot of unthinking people doing stupid things like duct-taping houses like you mentioned. Quite frankly, I think there are a number of federal agencies which are pretty screwed up right now, and I'd think the same thing if the Democrats had configured things this way and not the Republicans (sparing your readers from the list of cuts and reappropriations of funding related to domestic issues, as that's neither here nor there now). Heck, tonight I thought hell had frozen over because I agreed with something Newt Gingrich said: "I think it puts into question all of the Homeland Security and Northern Command planning for the last four years, because if we can't respond faster than this to an event we saw coming across the Gulf for days, then why do we think we're prepared to respond to a nuclear or biological attack?"

I realize I'm sort of rambling around here, but basically I think the key thing for me is not that the government should _protect_ its citizens to these sorts of things, but it should be there to _respond to the needs_ of its citizens AND do whatever it can to _prevent_ as much of the tragic aftermath of disasters as it can. Because if there is not a federal overseer, then you have a private overseer beholden to no one, or you have no overseer and that would be anarchy. All manner of government agencies, at all levels (local, state, federal), and for a number of years, have known that New Orleans was, well, THIS, waiting to happen. This Scientific American article from 2001 is just downright eerie. So yeah, there are things the government could have done in the recent past to protect its citizens, and there's a lot of stuff happening now that is a example of bad reponse from the government, and those are not good things.

Additional comments from others followed, and this is my follow-up response:

* I agree that it is idealistic and naive to consider this or any country prepared to withstand any attack. I never considered it the gov't's job to do that. I think we can and should expect the gov't to take reasonable measures to protect its citizens, and then make reasonable efforts to respond quickly and comprehensively to the aftermath. Between the "protect" and "respond" is the assumption that a tragedy will take place. It's inevitable. But, I don't think that's expecting too much. I think it's expecting a the bare minimum.

* People were moving to support relief efforts, you're right -- peple/the Red Cross/similar agencies. These people/orgs were in place and trying to do things before FEMA -- who is supposed to be in charge of these things -- even had a clue as to what was going on or what to do, despite having four or five days of warning at which time they should have been busting out the scenario binders and getting ready to deploy as soon as disaster hit, not four days later. Once they got there and tried to take over, everything was already in disarray. Take the situation of the National Guard units in other states; while under the control of their home state government for deployment within their state, in order to deploy out of state they must be ordered to do so by the federal gov't. The Michigan National Guard, for example, had fewer units deployed in the Middle East and thus had more troops to go help in Louisiana. That state made the official offer of help on a Monday -- paperwork which goes to Washington and not to Louisiana with its communications problems -- but no one signed the papers (which the gov't admits should have been a five minute process but is a required formality) until a Thursday. So troops were sitting there ready for search & rescue or crowd control or just basic support, for four days.

* The above situation regarding the federal gov't's failure to accept domestic offers extends worldwide as well, as profgrrrrl mentioned.
Here's a post that is attempting to list all the offers/non-offers and their status in one place, as reported by CNN and other sources (like the White House). As of this moment, it appears that the only offer tentatively accepted by the White House is Germany's offer of airlift, vaccination, water purification, medical supplies and pumping services. An offer from France of disaster-relief workers, tents, camp beds, generators, and portable water-treatment plants already in the Carribbean (e.g. closer than France) has not been accepted. These things don't have to go to NOLA, they can go to Houston, Baton Rouge, other cities with refugees. They're needed.

* The Lousiana state and local governments can only do so much regarding the mitigation of the effects of a hurricane when the federal government cuts their funds used to do so.

* Survival of the fittest. I can only ethically support the notion (those would be my own ethics, not anyone else's and it's not a judgement statement on anyone else's personal ethics, please don't interpret this statement as such) if the playing field is level -- and it's naive to think it is level and thus impossible for me to say that anyone not fit should be trodden upon. Now, people with the means to get out when warned, who didn't out of arrogance or whatever, in that situation they're their own responsibility. But people without means to get out -- and in an area where 30% of families are below the poverty line that's not an insignificant number -- the government has to help them, at least provide the means for them to rise up to the same level as others with means, so they can attempt to survive on their own. Personally, I pay an amount in taxes each year that is equal to bringing two entire families above the poverty line. I am completely fine with paying all that money out, in exchange for my citizenship in this country, when it can be used to directly help people in need, e.g. with government services. Those services should exist to level the playing field, and from that point people have to take over for themselves. But we, as a country, have to be able to give them the means to fend for themselves.

* Looking at a cross-section of news reports and the relative political leanings of each outlet, I agree with Wolfangel that regardless of political leanings there area numerous facts agreed upon by people on both sides -- both good things (e.g. Houston seriously stepping up and doing a super job so far of dealing with refugees) and bad things (FEMA being handcuffed, the Red Cross not allowed into affected areas, staged photo-ops, etc).

* Unlike you, I am not upset by the implications "that the racial and socio-economic demographics of the victims played a role in the speed of the recovery" because I do believe that they play a part. Hastert wouldn't have said "bulldoze it all and damn the rebuilding effort" if Katrina had hit Cape Cod. If this were some massive disaster that hit, say, Salt Lake City, I do think there would have been a better effort made. I truly do think that there are racial motivations at play in various parts of the current administration's reaction and efforts made regarding a city that voted 75% blue and contain(ed) the fifth-largest African-American population in the country. I really do.

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