Wednesday, October 24, 2007

This is not Katrina

I wasn't going to say anything else about the fires, but the prevalence of comparisons to Katrina has me mildly annoyed. It is certainly understandable, in light of the damage Katrina caused the administration (not as much as it caused to residents of the 9th Ward, of course, but still), that Bush and everybody associated with the administration would go overboard to show how concerned and competent FEMA and the rest of the feds are, and so they have. This was the biggest disaster since Katrina, so you knew they would make an extra effort. However, while I wouldn't be a bit surprised if FEMA has cleaned up its act -- a human response to Katrina --the Southern California fires do not and probably will not offer a close enough comparison to tell -- unless they really screw up the after-disaster administration and compensation aspects.

Take the stadium refugees. For starters, volunteers and officials could get to QualComm in San Diego without any trouble, whereas access in New Orleans was almost impossible. The San Diego people were evacuated from nice middle-class and upper-middle-class homes, most of them recently built except perhaps for some mountain homes. Most evacuees were able to handle a night or two away themselves, privately -- look at the difference between 300,000 homes evacuated and 15,000 people, 20,000 tops, at QualComm -- either with friends or in a hotel or motel. Although those in the stadium were uncertain and the fire was almost whimsical, leaving some houses standing and some destroyed in the same neighborhood, they had to know, what with 2,000 structures burned and 300,000 evacuated, that the odds were their house was not destroyed. Most probably had insurance -- it's almost impossible to get or keep a mortgage without it. So there wasn't the desperation or sense of being abandoned so many in New Orleans felt.

Second, while this was the most intense concentration of multiple fires all over the map in a few days that anybody can remember, wildfires are an annual occurence in California and state and local officials have some experience handling them. These stretched resources awfully thin, and there were probably mistakes made, but overall they did what they could. The heat and sometimes 100-mph winds made it inevitable that it would be almost impossible to get them under control until the weather changed, but everybody knew that. Setting up shelters, finding food and water, mobilizing trucks, planes and firefighters -- they know how to do that. The need for federal help was significant but not vital. New Orleans has had floods before, but nothing approaching the magnitude of what followed the levee breaks, and state and local government in Louisiana are traditionally incompetent and corrupt to a degree almost impossible to match anywhere in California.

Bottom line: FEMA and other federal agencies have probably improved, and will stay better until they get complacent again, as almost all government bureaucracies eventually do. But we won't be able to tell as much as we might like from this disaster.

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