There’s a place for ideology in the spectrum of political thought. However, it’s NOT in the midst of a disaster zone. There are people in Middlesex County, NJ who will be waiting for electricity until next Monday; friends called about an hour ago — they are OK, and counting themselves lucky the storm damage didn’t take out more than just the railings on their deck. There are people around this part of the country who are looking at the brown and blackened remains of range fires which consumed more than a half million acres in the region in August. We’ve something in common. Disaster management is not best organized on the local level. Nothing so well wipes out mythology than wind, water, and fire.
# Myth Number One: Local government is best able to manage disasters. Wrong. (1) Local disaster relief assets, including local government operations like the sheriff’s department, police officers, and fire departments are staffed and equipped to handle local emergencies. A fire such as the Holloway blaze which consumed some 461,000 acres, including vast acreage in Humboldt County, Nevada was completely beyond the capacity of local volunteer fire departments to manage. Nor should we imagine that the law enforcement and public safety officials in Middlesex County, New Jersey are able to cope with all the needs in their country associated with coping with the damage from Hurricane Sandy.
It should also be noted that local disaster management can only be accomplished IF the assets aren’t themselves subject to the disaster. It doesn’t take too long a junket down memory lane to recall the situations in which the local police and fire departments found themselves during Hurricane Katrina and the related flooding.
On the best days, local disaster management and assets are part of the total response, but the idea that a local sheriff’s department or local firefighting department could “manage” all the communication, logistic, and personnel involved in a major catastrophe is pure fantasy. What would we think of a local Emergency Management division telling FEMA officials where to pre-position equipment and supplies? Surely the decisions are made with local input, but having New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, and Rhode Island all “determining” the positioning of assets and supplies is asking for chaos and not coordination in advance of Sandy’s landfall.
(2) States may coordinate some public safety needs but the idea that situations the magnitude of the Holloway Fire or Hurricane Sandy can be addressed by state and local officials is ludicrous. (a) Again, consider the potential for mis-allocation of resources if all the states involved in Hurricane Sandy’s path were to position them on their own, and not in coordination with their neighbors. (b) Consider the problem of determining which state would share what with whom? And, when? (c) Consider the question of how to coordinate disaster management and relief operation if states not immediately involved are not subject to federal management plans? FEMA can authorize the pre-clearance of power company resources for use in restoring electricity to areas affected by disasters. Power crews from around the country will be available to the East Coast — compliments of federal coordination. Similarly, fire crews from at least five western states were available to fight the Holloway Fire — and they were ready thanks to planning by the National Interagency Fire Center which does long term forecasts and had already determined that northern Nevada, because of weather, natural vegetation growth, and drought conditions was ripe for major fires.
# Myth Number Two: Localizing or privatizing emergency management is always better than federal government interference. Wrong. The “private is always better” component of the conservative ideology is a lovely ethereal academic argument. It doesn’t work when the wind hits the beach or the fire touches dry brush. If capitalism works, and the profit motive is the core of personal incentive toward productivity — then where is the profit in coping with emergency shelters? Firefighting? Distribution of drinking water? Patrolling devastated areas? Coordinating the restoration of power?
There is a profit to be made if individuals are to be charged for the cost of the emergency management services. Unthinkable. Or, there is a profit to be made if the costs of providing these services are billed to state and local governments. Why pay any amount above the actual cost of the services?
All that is accomplished in a billing for services system is that the taxpayers are called upon to pay not only for the emergency management services provided but also a margin of profit for the companies providing those services. This seems like a most cynical form of corporate welfare.
And all this is why Governor Romney’s proposal to cut disaster relief is so horribly out of touch:
“We cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we’ll all be dead and gone before it’s paid off. It makes no sense at all.” [BusInsid]
He was talking about disaster relief. He is touching upon Rep. Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) notion that any disaster relief appropriations should be offset by cuts in other non-defense discretionary spending. It would be sad if it weren’t so silly.
For a party which continually tries to frame revenue and spending in terms of a family budget this doesn’t pass the laugh test. According to the conservative ideology, families are supposed to plan and save for exigent circumstances. However, when a government plans for and appropriates funding for disaster relief that’s somehow wasteful?
There’s nothing immoral about planning for natural disasters and their consequences, but there is something immoral about suggesting that it is not the place of our national government to offer protection and provide the necessities of life to our fellow citizens in times like these.