Editorial: Planning for Inevitable Disasters By BECKY O'MALLEY

Friday October 07, 2005

Anyone who’s lived in Northern California for a few years is bound to have mixed feelings about October. It is arguably our most beautiful month: warm sunny days, crisp fog-free nights, clear enough to see the moon and all the stars even in the city. But October’s gorgeous weather stirs memories in many of us of two October events in the last twenty years that reminded us of our mortality, and of the fragile grip we have on our lotus-eater lives even in this perfect-seeming region.  

The Loma Prieta earthquake on Oct. 17, 1989, was a stunning surprise to most people here who had never lived through a real earthquake with extensive damage and loss of life. The most shocking aspect of this earthquake was the failure of public infrastructure: the Cypress section of the freeway in Oakland and the Bay Bridge. Most people at the time believed in the basic competence of the civil authorities: that “they know what they’re doing.” It turned out that “they” had made a number of miscalculations about the public works which were under their care, and people suffered the consequences. 

Not long afterwards, in 1991, we had the Oakland hills firestorm. Every lovely warm October day I’m reminded of how I was sitting drinking coffee with a neighbor on the deck at my house, which has a panoramic view of Ashby Avenue traffic, when what seemed like twenty fire engines roared past at top speed with sirens blaring. “Something’s really wrong,” she said, and she was right. This turned out to be another case where “they” didn’t get the planning quite right: the lack of interoperability between Oakland and other fire departments had major bad consequences, though the firefighters themselves did a heroic job of saving many houses, including mine. 

Is the lesson here that we shouldn’t rely on “them” to take care of us? Well, it’s certainly a good idea to have the right kind of supplies stashed away in your backyard, assuming of course that you have a backyard to stash them in. But that doesn’t do much for the Bay Area’s many citizens who live in places too small to store two weeks worth of emergency rations. Or for those who are away from home when the crisis hits, perhaps riding a bicycle in an unfamiliar neighborhood, or on Bart. During the earthquake, we were in our unreinforced masonry office on Telegraph, on the very shaky second floor of the building which now houses Rasputin’s (and was retrofitted by the current owner). Just a few more Richter notches, and bottled water wouldn’t have done us much good.  

At the time of the big fire, my husband was in Tahoe at a conference, and my visiting elderly aunt was on a bus tour of the Napa Valley. I was home alone, but kept my cool. I packed up the car with all the “important” stuff, ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice—and then locked my keys inside. I hitched a ride in my neighbor’s pickup truck, taking only a portrait of my daughter painted by a dead friend. So much for planning ahead…  

Reports coming out of New Orleans this week are emphasizing the folly of relying on a patchwork of voluntary organizations or on individual initiatives to pick up the pieces after a disaster strikes. And relief organizations can’t do much to prevent problems beforehand.  

Many press commentators, especially those in other countries, have contrasted the U.S. damage caused by Katrina with the Cuban government’s smooth handling of hurricanes just as severe, most recently Ivan in 2004. Here’s what the Associated Press report in September of 2004 said about Cuba’s program: “Evacuations here are widespread and mandatory. Civil defense plans are highly developed, with preparedness education programs for the entire population.” People are quickly moved out of harm’s way, and they’re back home soon, because property damage is quickly repaired by government workers after the hurricane passes. 

“The Cuban way could easily be applied to other countries with similar economic conditions, and even in countries with greater resources that do not manage to protect their population as well as Cuba does,” Salvano Briceno, director of the U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, told the AP last year. In a country with the enormous resources that we have in the United States, there’s no excuse for not having well-organized government-executed plans on the national level to deal with predictable disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes and fires. And no, we won’t accept the excuse that the Bush regime just doesn’t like the federal government. Even Republicans know that’s lame.