Monday, October 22, 2007

When Disaster Strikes

Why is it when disaster strikes, some folks’ first impulse is to grab their wallets and shout, “Mine! It’s all mine!”

Although I’m thousands of miles away, the Malibu fires are hitting home for me. Unlike other national tragedies, I’m actually familiar with the affected area, since I attended high school nearby.

Anyone who’s grown up in Southern California remembers those fall days of wild Santa Ana winds. Combined with tinder-dry vegetation and a spark, they can create a hell on earth. You never forget the smell of burning canyon wilderness, the smoky orange-red sunsets and showers of ash that last for days.

So I headed over to the Los Angeles Times to get the latest news, then checked the user comments section. In addition to prayers for peoples’ safety and questions about school closures, there were some predictable comments, such as this one:
3. People and government should be held responsible for building in fire prone areas. All CA tax payers should not foot the bill. More thought and effort needs to be put into proper land use planning.
Submitted by: Peter
6:10 PM PDT, October 21, 2007

With a similar beef is "Concerned”:

2. Should taxpayers as a whole be responsible for defending new homes that are built in extremely fire prone areas? Perhaps we need to give more thought to land use planning with regard to fire prevention. Throughout the west our ability to "manage" fire risk is stretched thin, and it's our land use patterns that are creating huge fire management expense and putting brave firefighters in extremely dangerous conditions. Concerned
5:57 PM PDT, October 21, 2007

First of all, we don’t know if Malibu will need taxpayer assistance to rebuild, but just speaking to the larger issue, this thinking drives me nuts.

This “why should I have to pay for it!” is a popular lament, especially among right-wingers. We heard it a lot after Hurricane Katrina (though I don’t recall hearing anything after a tornado destroyed the town of Greensburg, Kansas). The argument is that it’s your own fault for living in a fire-prone (or hurricane prone, or tornado-prone) area. But unless you’ve found some patch of land completely immune to any and all acts of God, I’ve got a big steaming cup of STFU for you.

Now, some have made the argument that it’s not government’s responsibility to bail communities out of these situations. It’s with a bit of irony that I present this post-Katrina Neil Cavuto interview with another one of Fox News’ notable experts, Jack Chambless, economics professor at Valencia Community College. Chambless said:

But the founding fathers never intended, Article One, section Eight of the Constitution, never intended to provide one dollar of taxpayer dollars to pay for any disaster or anything that we might call charity. What we now have is the law of unintended consequences taking place, where FEMA has come into New Orleans, a place where, ecologically, it makes no sense to have levees keeping the Mississippi River from flooding into New Orleans, like it naturally should.

I’m not going to diss community colleges, which I think are an important part of the higher education system, but I do wonder if Mr. Chambless was the only economics expert Fox News could find to speak thusly on this issue. I wonder if most economics experts might instead speak to the greater economic and social benefits of rebuilding a community as soon as possible. It's the whole principle behind the Marshall Plan; I'm not sure but I think the righties thought that was a good thing. Regardless, right now I’m just wondering if Chambless still holds his opinions, now that wildfires are headed to his part of Los Angeles County.

But I digress. By definition, disasters overwhelm local communities; whether it’s New Orleans or Greensburg, Kansas or somewhere in California, assistance may be needed. Frankly, I find it odd that some folks have a problem spending taxpayer money putting an American town back together but have no problem using that same money to destroy towns in foreign countries.

If you've ever noticed, that whole punitive “it serves you right, you asked for it” tone always manages to creep into these arguments. Even Chambless blames the residents of New Orleans for their fate. Once again I say: shit happens. Every place has its hurricanes, tornados, blizzards, mudslides, wildfires, drought, etc. etc. It’s called living on planet earth, so deal with it.

Speaking of “Deal With It,” I was touched by the compassion of a poster going by that name at the Times forum:

104. ain't no poor people in malibu--it's 'whitewood' out there. they know what they're getting into, living in a fire zone. they got money to rebuild. don't get all bent out of shape about these people and their fire.
Submitted by: deal with it
12:38 PM PDT, October 21, 2007

That’s the spirit. What a way to care about your neighbor! Sheesh.Is America coming apart at the seams or what?