Rich Lowry

When disaster strikes, there's no substitute for effective government.

Whipped up by 100 mph gusts of the Santa Ana winds and burning so hot that firefighters at times could only stand back and watch, the wildfires in Southern California have burned 700 square miles, devoured 1,500 homes -- and enhanced the reputations of state and local officials who have handled the crisis well.

Comparing any natural disaster with Hurricane Katrina is unfair. That storm blasted an entire city, knocking out all services in New Orleans, while the California wildfires -- for all their vastness -- affect limited areas, and power and telephone service have stayed on. Many people in New Orleans lacked the means to evacuate, which isn't a problem in the upscale communities hit by the fires, where people can get into their Mercedes or Lexus and go.

But the contrast between public officials who have to cope with their own manifest inadequacies as leaders and failures to plan and prepare and those who are competent and engaged is obvious for anyone to see. The day before the California fires started (apparently in an act of arson), back in Louisiana, Republican Bobby Jindal was winning 54 percent in the Louisiana governor's race, succeeding Democrat Kathleen Blanco, who couldn't run for re-election after her on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown performance in Katrina.

The California wildfires will produce no Blancos. Like many big states, California is good at emergency response because it has to do so much of it. Fires are a perennial problem, and the response to them is constantly practiced. In contrast to the post-Katrina chaos at the top in Louisiana, lines of command and control are clear. After the worst fire season ever in 2003, San Diego instituted a "reverse 9-1-1" telephone system that -- strangely enough for an expensive government system -- has worked.

It has logged calls to 350,000 homes urging people to evacuate. In the past, people had to rely on announcements on radio and TV that they might miss if they weren't watching or listening, especially late at night. Now, a fire crew alerts the sheriff's department to what neighborhoods are in danger, and homes there receive specially crafted calls telling them to get out and the best routes to take.

The system has saved lives. In the 2003 fires, which were larger, 22 people died, most of them directly from the flames. This year, 10 people have died, but only three directly from the flames. Compared with 2003, several times more people have left their homes for safety, in the largest mass evacuation since Katrina.


Rich Lowry

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years .
 
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