Saturday, October 27, 2007

A tale of two disasters

It hasn't been hard to notice how much more quickly the federal government responded to the California wildfires this week than to Hurricane Katrina two years ago. It's also not hard to see why.

It's not necessarily any sort of significant difference in the state and local leadership, despite what Bush administration talking heads have suggested. It's not necessarily that FEMA and other federal officials have made any sort of marked improvement in disaster response planning since Katrina hit. And it's not necessarily that rescue officials cared more about the mostly white California wildfire victims than the mostly black New Orleans hurricane victims.

Quite simply, the answer seems to be a matter of scale. The wildfires, horrible as they are, have wrought nowhere near the amount of destruction that Katrina did. And unlike the hurricane that flooded everything and cut off much of the outside world's access to large swaths of Louisiana and Mississippi, the wildfires have struck a few selected areas but largely have left local response infrastructure intact. A former spokeswoman for New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin put it thusly: "[Y]ou're comparing a paper cut to an amputation."

The questions remain: What, if anything, can be done to reduce the number and scale of such disasters, and what, if anything, can we do to improve our response to them? The answer to the first question isn't very promising. For all the talk of global warming, Hurricane Katrina and the California wildfires almost surely would have happened regardless.

The scientific evidence strongly suggests, though, that climate change will increase the frequency and intensity of nature's wrath. A portion of the warming trend could be attributable to natural cycles, of course, but only the most deluded critic of global warming would argue that human activity hasn't had a meaningful negative impact on the phenomenon. Without swift and strong action to reduce that contribution, we soon could find that freakish disasters are becoming common occurrences.

Our answer to the second question is only as good as our answer to another question: What matters to us? The government has a finite number of tax dollars to use to achieve common goals, and every dollar that goes toward one purpose is one that doesn't go toward another. Every dollar devoted to the never-ending Iraq war or tax cuts targeted to the top 5 percent of earners is a dollar that can't be spent on researching alternative energy research or securing infrastructure or working to respond to sudden chaos, be it manmade or natural.

It's outside our power to stop Mother Nature. But it's within our power to stop her from overwhelming us on a regular basis.

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