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Fire and Water

Why were the SoCal fires handled so much better than Katrina?

By Petrarch  |  October 25, 2007

The disaster of Hurricane Katrina has gone down as perhaps the blackest mark on President Bush's administration.  The Iraq War, while certainly the subject of controversy, might possibly be turning a corner (finally), and we can at least imagine a situation in which history might look back on it as, on balance, not so bad.  The security measures put in place after 9-11, while again hated by many, at least have the defense that there have been no successful repeat attacks on the U.S.  But Katrina has no such counter-argument - an American city was destroyed; people wallowed in squalor for days if not weeks; and the progress made there in the intervening years has been minimal at best.

Now we find ourselves in the midst of another city-sized disaster: the fires in Southern California.  If anything, more people are affected there, and public coordination is even more of a challenge.  At least most of the poor folk in Louisiana speak English, which is more than can be said for the San Diego area.  Yet in stark contrast to the chaos in the Crescent City, we see in Cali... well, not perfect order of course, but nothing remotely resembling the Third World-style pictures from Katrina.

Why might this be?  The same President Bush is in the White House.  The new Democratic Congress has not added any funding or oversight to emergency services.  No National Guard troops were immediately deployed.  There were not any additional non-profit services available to California that were not available to Louisiana.

California is, if anything, more Democratic than Louisiana; although Arnold the Governator is a Republican, the legislature is overwhelmingly liberal.

No doubt there will be many scholarly tomes written over the months and years to come. But for now, there are several interesting observations and comparisons that are instantly apparent.

Intelligent local leaders

We've all seen photos of the hundreds of flooded New Orleans school buses that could have been used to evacuate carless citizens.  This has nothing to do with President Bush - he is not on the school board.  The leaders of New Orleans bear full responsibility for this idiocy.

In contrast, San Diego appears, thus far, to have been a model of organization.  In contrast to the hellhole that was the Superdome, San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium has housed 11,000 evacuees in peace and order.

Louisiana politics has been famously corrupt for centuries; with the recent election of Bobby Jindal, we can hope they may be turning over a new leaf.  California politics -- while inclined to push the envelope -- are not so nearly accustomed to illicit activities and scandals.

And good leadership has other benefits too: people are willing to listen.  In New Orleans, when the authorities recommended evacuation, many people chose to ignore the warnings.  In California, when the same announcements were made, the people trusted the authorities to know what they were talking about, and the vast majority of folks hit the road post haste.

Ask for help promptly

Louisiana's Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco notoriously neglected to ask for federal assistance until Katrina was at its height, and after federal officials practically begged her to do so - because we are a federal form of government, a state must request assistance in a disaster; the feds can't just roll in on their own.  Gov. Schwarzenegger, head of a far wealthier state, was not too proud to ask for help right away.  And indeed, the feds delivered, having provided military units to fight fires, assist in evacuations, and do all manner of helpful things that the military is good at.  Which brings us to:

A well-funded, professional military is useful at home too

From time to time we hear calls to cut our military, because foreign threats may seem reduced at that moment.  While there is an unimaginable amount of waste at the Pentagon -- as with all government departments and bureaucracies -- it is important to remember that the military is not useful merely for fighting wars.

Our military is the best in the world, obviously at fighting, but even more so at conducting logistics and communication in bad conditions.  Most of our civilian goods normally arrive on well-maintained highways and railways, having been summoned by an email, telephone call, or fax, across myriad communication lines - and of course, all dependent on electric power.  The military can get the job done when none of that is available, as is the case in a war zone and also a disaster area.  This is also an argument as to why having a military base nearby can be nice when the going gets tough - the thousands of sailors in the San Diego area immediately stepped up to offer assistance wherever they could be of use.

Assistance.  Help.  Support.  Relief.  One common theme unites all these words, and that is, the concept of standing next to somebody, working together to solve a problem.  That's what took place in San Diego - when the volunteers, government aid workers, and military from all across America arrived, they found the residents and authorities of California already on the job, hard at work, doing what they could to help the situation.  The newcomers simply needed to step up to the fireline and lend a hand.

In New Orleans, on the other hand, when the assistance arrived, in effect they found the locals sitting on their hands, whining "What took you so long?  Get me out of here!"

It's been said that God helps those who help themselves.  The same holds true of the national government.  No matter how powerful and wealthy the federal government may be, disaster preparation and response must always be, first and foremost, the job of local authorities.  If they are competent, things will go reasonably well.  If they are incompetent, no amount of Federal help can rescue the situation.