With the passing of Hurricane Irene over the next day or so, many people will be facing the task of picking up the pieces. The storm seems to have been far less severe than originally advertised, but it still took roughly a dozen lives and will leave a lot of folks without power for some time to come. So were we ready for this storm?
We were beyond ready. Or perhaps it might be better described as having been ready to a ridiculous degree. While in no way seeking to diminish the importance of being prepared for natural disasters, we just witnessed a week long, fully televised, over analyzed, painfully punctual dog and pony show which will be, I’m afraid, the new normal in 21st century America. The biggest factor in creating the new politics of hurricanes was Katrina, a name mentioned so many times over the last few days that it nearly outnumbered Irene in references. But other events on a more localized scale, ranging from failed snow removal efforts following a blizzard to garbage pick-up strikes are informing the actions of state governors, mayors of large cities, police chiefs and emergency management bureaucrats.
There were photo ops aplenty to be sure. Starting at the top, President Obama dragged himself home from the golf course to go personally sit in on emergency planning meetings. The cameras rolled as he sat, listening intently to the FEMA director with his shirt sleeves rolled up. And no… that wasn’t a metaphor. The man actually rolled up his shirt sleeves for the picture.
The governors of pretty much every state on the east coast were trotted out repeatedly in front of the cameras. They dutifully provided excruciating details of every person they had called, every executive order they had written and every dollar of emergency relief funds which they had preemptively put in place. They scolded their more incautious citizens about the dangers of failing to evacuate, neglecting to have a go bag or a survival kit at the ready. For all the world they looked like school children, freshly returned from summer vacation, going to great lengths to explain plot lines and characters to make sure you believed they finished their summer reading assignments.
And in the eyes of each of them you saw the combination of fear and determination. This wasn’t about saving people from a rain storm.. it was about saving political careers from a crap storm of bad PR. The underlying message in each of these endless appearances was clear. If this whole thing blows up into a huge turd that hits the fan, you’re not blaming it on me.
It was clear that many of the executives were willing to play hardball to get this point across. On Saturday, one reporter claimed that Mayor Bloomberg had ordered New York’s Finest to issue indelible ink markers to residents who refused to evacuate, asking them to write their names and social security numbers on their arms. This, they said, was so it would be, “easier to identify you later.” Once again the message was crystal clear. If any Big Apple Denizens died, it was going to be their fault. Or their mother’s fault. Or perhaps even some rookie ambulance driver’s fault. But by God in Heaven it was not going to be Bloomberg’s fault.
Katrina changed the country in many ways, but perhaps none so much as the way it changed our politics. Nobody was going to get caught on camera in a “Bush Moment” where he was staring out the window of Air Force One from 30,000 feet up, surveying the damage below. No mayor wants to be the next person to fail to clean up the city streets three days after a blizzard. It’s no longer enough to do your job. Far more important is making sure that everybody else knows you’re doing your job.
Maybe this is a good thing. After all, we do want to ensure that we’re ready for disasters, and executives need to be on the ball. But will this also lead to vast expenditures of cash we don’t have every time the skies grow cloudy just to avoid a bad video clip running wild on You Tube? Such thinking, and the inevitable criticism which follows, was taking shape before the storm fully formed. Over at Fox, Iain Murray and David Bier are asking if we even need a national weather service?
I don’t know if the answer to that question is “yes” or not. But I do know that if we’re going to have one, it should probably be more important and at least as competently run as the political advisory system which devotes so many resources toward making sure that our state and federal executives don’t come off looking bad on CNN.