Despite a tragic history of regular disasters–earthquakes, hurricanes, bridge collapses and fires–Americans seem unwilling to prepare for the inevitable. This may have something to do with the forty-year conservative assault on government and the resulting skepticism about things that can’t be justified as fighting terrorism.
But local agency response to San Diego’s wildfires shows that despite inadequate resources, government on the ground can, in fact, be good. The firefighters, police and other emergency personnel performed efficiently and heroically. Public officials at the local and state level worked well together to coordinate the firefighting, rescue and relief efforts.
San Diego’s new, widely praised “reverse 911” system, which made thousands of evacuation calls to get residents out of harm’s way early, was developed with Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) Homeland Security funds. Even FEMA–the federal agency that bungled the response to Katrina–showed up quickly and began collecting relief applications.
Local government response to the San Diego fires is a stark rebuke to the claim that government is inherently incompetent–or even unnecessary. But while thousands of volunteers stepped up to help, we cannot plan a primarily volunteer response to major disasters, any more than we can expect volunteers to build our roads or collect our trash. This is why we have government. The only question is whether our public agencies will be adequately funded, equipped and staffed to do the things we need them to do.
What occurred in San Diego tells a bigger story. Preparing our nation for future disasters requires government at all levels to provide the resources we need to save lives and property. We need local, state and national leaders who can articulate a sense of common purpose beyond fighting terrorism–a vision of a nation that builds on hope, not fear. And they have a responsibility to identify the resources we need and to mobilize the public to pay for them.
Unfortunately, as we head into a wide-open presidential election year, none of the candidates are articulating an adequate response to our fundamental challenges. GOP rivals parrot the same old, increasingly irrelevant formula of cutting taxes and dismantling government. And Democrats have yet to go far enough to articulate the critical role of public investment. So far, there are no bold proposals to build a twenty-first century infrastructure that better prepares us for both public disasters and the daily crises facing American families.
The tragic losses of life and property from the San Diego wildfires, Hurricane Katrina and the recent Minnesota bridge collapse expose a troubling neglect of our nation’s infrastructure. Together, they should be a wake-up call. We have the technology and know-how to protect ourselves. We just lack the political will.
Many disasters, such as hurricanes, fires and earthquakes, are predictable. We may not know when they’ll arrive, but we know they will sooner or later. Other disasters–such as bridge collapses–seem more random, but we know that if bridges aren’t regularly inspected and repaired, some will eventually collapse.