The Un-Katrina

Posted: Oct 25, 2007 4:52 PM
The Un-Katrina

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.

San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium filled up with 20,000 evacuees and volunteers. If the Superdome in New Orleans after Katrina was like a ring in Dante's hell, Qualcomm has been like a street fair -- with bountiful food, and even massages, acupuncture and yoga on offer. California had the advantage of learning from Katrina, as did federal officials who -- desperate to avoid the mistakes of the past -- worked to act fast, cut through bureaucracy and coordinate closely with the Red Cross.

Nothing is ever perfect. Critics complain that officials were slow to get fire-fighting helicopters and planes into the air, although Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger maintains that it was the high winds that kept them on the ground. Even as the state set aside $850 million this year for fire-fighting, it hasn't funded all the initiatives recommended by a commission after 2003. Whatever its failings, California's government isn't as addled with corruption and incompetence as Louisiana's, and that has made the difference.

Ideally, government shouldn't be big, but it should be energetic, and those (few) things it does, it should do well. Emergency response is one of them. California's response to the wildfires has been a case of "your tax dollars at work" -- a phrase that, in this instance, needn't carry its usual note of bitter irony.

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