Thursday, March 24, 2011
If this had been a real emergency…
At the start of every movie, concert, theatre performance (“ticketed performance”) in California audiences are directed to “look around for the nearest emergency exit.” This admonition/warning was the result of a law signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger effective January 2007. Airline passengers are accustomed to extensive safety announcements thanks to federal law and the FAA. I’ve taken enough cruises so I actually know how to put on the lifejacket for the mandatory safety drills. Products carry warning labels as a matter of course.
Living in “Earthquake Country” there is a certain amount of preparedness that is commonplace in my life. There’s extra bottled water on hand, first aid kits, a few hundred dollars in small bills for when the ATM’s go out, etc. I don’t have a bunker and food storage is, well, more likely to be consumed than saved. There are communications plans for friends and family and I have a couple of power back-up units that would last less than an afternoon.
Back in the 1990’s I ran a technology company whose primary customers were radio stations around the country – and the service that was provided to the stations required stability. When we moved into a new location in Santa Monica I oversaw the install of a custom back-up battery power system that would run the servers, computers and office for an entire week. The installation of all those batteries required structural reinforcement to the building and a monumentally large check by the parent company. Happily, it was never needed.
The devastation that the 8.9 earthquake, the tsunami and the nuclear crisis have wrought on Japan is sad, tragic and simply awful. The Japanese people serve as a model of preparedness. Schools and businesses have weekly earthquake drills. Building codes are rigorous. Even still, Mother Nature’s powerful one-two-three punch proved to be too much and part of the country is devastated. The survivors are reestablishing their lives in a different world and modifying behavior as a result.
Americans do not appear to be as self-reliant. It seems that whenever there is a disruption of routine an emergency is declared. In 2010 President Obama declared 81 disasters – the most ever. Should he serve two full terms he will declare 560 emergencies. George W. Bush declared 516 during his eight years, Bill Clinton 379. Clearly the United States is a magnet for disasters and it gets worse each year. But does it?
An emergency declaration allows for logistics support, funding and an assortment of other federal programs to kick in. An area under an emergency declaration is able to suspend rules and laws in order to manage the disaster. This structure exists for good reason – during a major cataclysmic event first responders must be able to stabilize the situation as quickly as possible without some of the luxuries that democracy usually demands. During a less serious event the powers are excessive so determining what is and what isn't an emergency is important.
The definition of an emergency has evolved...or devolved. This past winter, one of the worst in many years, declarations were happening before the snow started. It seems every storm can be categorized as an emergency – and, much like the in-flight and in-theatre announcements it becomes white noise. Most people don't think too much about it and are not only glad for the extra help, they expect it.
Responding poorly to an emergency can be political suicide. President Bush (41) was roundly criticized for FEMA’s response to Hurricane Andrew. Thirteen years later his son (43) received even more criticism over the federal response to Hurricane Katrina while President Clinton got strong praise for how his team dealt with the 6.7 Northridge Earthquake. Each of these were important, major events.
The costs of these emergences add up. Each state has its own emergency budget and FEMA costs about $10.1 billion per year just for operations. Each declaration receives additional funding which is outside of the regular budgeting process.
More important than the dollars, the cycle of declare-every-event-a-disaster has reduced our ability to distinguish what is really an emergency and what is inconvenient, difficult and part of life. I choose to live in an area known for earthquakes, droughts and mudslides. I have family and friends who choose to live close to beaches that flood, or in the mountains where snow avalanches, or in states where hurricanes and tornados regularly sweep through.
Life has risks. Looking to the government after something bad happens to buffer the pain or solve the problem is part of the deterioration of personal responsibility that damages America more than any storm ever could. For something cataclysmic – yes, the government has a role and it must play it well. These events are few and far between and must be very thoughtfully and carefully designated. For something unfortunate the government should not protect against consequence of just living.
Between 2000 and 2010 nearly every county in America had at one time been under an emergency declaration. Given the wide range of powers that government takes on during a declaration, a conspiracy theorist might conclude that there’s some evil plot to strip Americans of their rights. The truth is that to buffer ourselves from inconvenience we have voluntarily and eagerly given over those rights…which is actually much more insidious and leads us as a nation further away from individual reponsibility and liberty.