Are We The People Ready for Hurricane Irene?

At this hour, rain bands are coming ashore at Nags Head, North Carolina. The main body of the storm is expected ashore between 2 and 6 am eastern time. This massive storm is then forecast to run north up the East Coast of the US, crossing Washington, DC, Delaware, New York and Philadelphia, then up into New England and back into the Atlantic over the Maritime Provinces of Canada. I've kept the television on all day with one eye on the the stock market and the other on hurricane coverage. The weather coverage, at least on NBC, has been very good (compared to past storms) without most of the silly hyperbole and running around trying to find some wind to stand in for a breathless on-scene report.

My big concern, though, is, are we prepared for a storm that could disrupt the lives of some 65 million Americans? Can we respond as a society to this kind of threat?

That's a question many are asking, especially in the wake of the disastrous government response of past hurricanes and other natural disasters, and since the government became a target of political ideologues with the stated goal of dismantling essential government services such as was done to FEMA during the past administration. The US government response during the Katrina disaster was shameful, even as some politicians declared that disaster response was a responsibility of local and state governments, even though those governments were virtually destroyed in the aftermath and couldn't cope with the scale of the destruction.

During the Obama administration, FEMA has been restored to functionality and even has a director who has actual disaster response experience unlike those who ran the agency during the Bush administration. William Fugate, the current director appointed by President Obama, ran Florida's emergency response program and began his career as a firefighter and paramedic. The FEMA response to the tragic tornadoes and floods this last spring were a world away from anemic responses prior to him taking office in May 2009. Since Fugate took the helm at FEMA, he has been working diligently to repair and rebuild the tarnished agency.

Which brings us back to the main question: can FEMA along with state and local governments respond to a potential disaster the size of Hurricane Irene? I believe the answer is maybe, since a storm like this that is threatening such a huge area and millions of people is virtually unprecedented. It does appear though, that state agencies and FEMA are cooperating, and emergency teams and supplies have been pre-positioned to move in. Hopefully the damage won't be as extensive as feared, and the response, run by competent administrators, will be timely and appropriate.

Some politicians, notably extreme conservatives, oppose any government intervention. Ron Paul today railed against FEMA and remarkably compared today's response capability to that of Galveston's after the 1900 storm that destroyed much of that city. During his diatribe before television cameras in New Hampshire today, Paul declared,

"We should be like 1900; we should be like 1940, 1950, 1960. I live on the Gulf Coast; we deal with hurricanes all the time. Galveston is in my district.

"There's no magic about FEMA. They're a great contribution to deficit financing and quite frankly they don't have a penny in the bank. We should be coordinated but coordinated voluntarily with the states. A state can decide. We don't need somebody in Washington."

In making his statement, Paul conveniently left out the tiny detail that a documented 6,000 people died in the Galveston storm in 1900 and approximately another 2,000 disappeared off the face of the earth, probably swept out to sea. He also ignored the fact that during natural disasters, local governments are often crippled and state governments stretched beyond their capability to take control. The critical omission from his assertion was when he said that Galveston built the seawall (implying all by itself) when a good portion of the wall was actually built by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Last time I checked, the Corps is a federal government agency.

Conservative House Majority Leader Eric Cantor made similarly bewildering comments after the Virginia earthquake earlier this week, declaring that government response to that event would only occur if corresponding cuts were made in other spending. These guys don't seem to comprehend that the time for ideological rhetoric and threats of spending cuts is not when our citizens are being threatened by disasters beyond their control.

The real tragedy here is that the ones who almost always suffer the most in natural disasters are those who can least afford it: the working poor and the middle class. As costs have skyrocketed the last 20 years, many of those in these socioeconomic classes have had to give up or cut property insurance and health insurance. Without out those essential safety nets, invariably all of the burden to rebuild their personal lives would fall totally to them.

These disasters are an opportunity to bring into clear focus the real issue that lays before us. That issue is about the role of government. Many anti-government forces have successfully staked out territory that asserts that the "free market" cures all ills, which it doesn't. They declare that the government can't do anything right (except for winning 2 World Wars and going to the Moon in less than 10 years), and that it should be shrunk down to the size that it can be "drowned in the bathtub". These same ideologues take hundreds of millions of dollars in donations from those they help, while voting against their own constituents.

We need to decide who we are as a society. Unlike the ideologues, I don't believe that the government is some "Other" run by enemies of freedom as they so often like to declare; I do believe that the government is us, and that's its destruction is the real threat to freedom. Because I believe that, I also believe that, as a society, we have an obligation to work for the common good. We need to provide not only for those who need help, like storm victims and the sick, but also to create an environment where everyone has the opportunity for a decent standard of living and the safety net of healthcare and Social Security.

We are the richest nation in the world (if we don't move all the wealth to China) and can certainly meet these basic goals. But, we can only do that if we hold our leaders responsible. We have allowed our system of government to devolve into a continuous cycle of election and re-election, where our representatives are focused only on the money it takes to get them re-elected, and doing the bidding of those who give the money. We can hold them accountable, though, and it's high time that we do that.