Saturday, November 3, 2012

One For the Ages

For once, a "Storm of the Century" actually lived up to the hype.  Sandy has certainly left an indelible impression on the eastern seaboard of the United States and as far inland as Ohio and West Virginia.

High winds and a driving, soaking rain totaling as much as 6 inches wreaked havoc on coastal areas of New Jersey, New York City, Long Island, Maryland, and coastal New England as far north as Maine.  In areas inland, from western Virginia throughout West Virginia, eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania the rain was followed by heavy wet snow that brought down trees and power lines.  Some locations received as much as 2 feet of snow.  The Great Lakes saw "seas" reaching 20 feet!  20 foot waves on a lake!

Millions were left without power and hundreds of thousands remain without power still.  Open gas stations are few and far between in NYC and NJ, with 2/3rds of stations closed due to a lack of electricity to power their pumps.  In the places that do have power and gas, people wait in long lines for the opportunity to purchase a limited quantity, sometimes waiting as long as 6 hrs to buy a few gallons of gas to run their generators.  Those lucky enough to have generators, that is.  Many do not.

Homes on the Jersey Shore were washed away or knocked off their foundations.  Amusement parks, landmarks that have stood for generations, are no more.  The coastline itself has been re-arranged.  In one section of NYC a ruptured gas main led to a tragic fire that wiped out more than 100 homes, leaving nothing but bare foundations and charred rubble.

In some parts of the city, people are reportedly dumpster diving for food, wandering the streets beseeching news crews for food, water, clothing, anything; while violence breaks out among those waiting in line at gas stations.  Some citizens have pulled guns on each other.  Others have gone out and waited in the long lines for gasoline, only to return and find that their homes had been broken into, what little they had left ransacked and stolen.  Not much to be seen of man's better nature.  Case in point, a group of utility workers drove up to NYC from Alabama to help with the recovery efforts.  Far from being welcomed, they were driven out of the state by protesting union workers, called "scabs" & "scumbags".  Apparently, these union workers would rather have their neighbors go without power and heat a few days longer than necessary rather than allow outside help.  For no other reason than they were not members of the union and they thought they'd be losing out on the overly rich overtime rates they can expect from the recovery work.

Listening to the people shown on the national newscasts literally begging for help, crying out, demanding to know where the help from the government is, saying, "This shouldn't be happening in America."  (As if any city should be expected to simply shrug off the effects of a storm of this magnitude and be back to normal in a couple of days), I am uncomfortably visited by dual competing emotions and thoughts.

First, my heart goes out to all of those affected by the storm; to those left homeless, to those who have lost literally everything, to those who have lost loved ones.  I urge everyone to donate to the charity of their choice to aid in the recovery efforts.  Also, I'd like to commend all those who have come from all over the eastern US and Canada to volunteer their efforts (where they've been allowed to) in service to those affected.

That said, I have to ask, "What were these people thinking?!"  When I see these people on TV demanding that government respond to their demands (immediately, if not sooner) all I can see is Katrina.  You have similar situations.  These people had several days notice that this storm was coming.  It wasn't like an earthquake or forest fire.  Everyone knew this storm was going to hit and that it was going to be bad.  Everyone likely to be in the affected areas were advised to evacuate.  Failing that, they were advised to fill their gas tanks and to be sure they had several days worth of food and water, medical supplies, and other necessities on hand before the storm's arrival.  They were told that they would be on their own in the aftermath of the storm, due to the likelihood of access routes being cut off and relief vehicles not being able to reach them.

Many heeded the warnings and either got out or stocked up.  Sadly, many more did not.  They decided to "ride it out" believing, as so many always seem to, that no matter what happens they will always have their needs met by government or some other body; that no matter their failure to take reasonable precautions, they would always somehow be shielded from negative consequences.  Also, as always seems to happen in these cases, these same people who fail to take minimal care to prepare for disaster are the first to cry for help and demand to know why it's not coming fast enough, criticizing those who are working long hours in truly dangerous situations, in some cases actually risking their lives, for not being fast enough to respond to their needs.

Some people just never seem to learn.  Wasn't it just a year or so ago that Irene went through here?  Didn't they learn from the example of Katrina?  Or from the devastation of the tornadoes in Missouri and the Midwest?  Or from the hurricanes in Florida?  Or from the wild fires in California and the mountain west?  They always expect to be able to rely on the government riding to the rescue and are always surprised and angry when they discover that government is unable to do so.

George W. Bush was roundly criticized for the FEMA response to hurricane Katrina.  Both by the opposition political establishment and by the people who decided not to evacuate the city demanding to know where their benefit cards were, and their cash assistance, and their trailers, and why the reimbursement checks for their expenses were so slow in coming.  Aside from FEMA being a fairly new agency at that point, being run by someone unqualified to oversee such an effort, the expectations were completely unrealistic.  They always are.  In a disaster of such scope, "back to normal" is always farther into the future than the people think it should be.

In this case, however, the criticisms of FEMA have more merit.  If for no other reason than that they've already been through this once and should have learned from the earlier mistakes.  FEMA had the same several days warning.  They presumably also had access to up-to-the-minute estimates of probable damage likely to occur.  Given this information, as well as the experience gained from the problems with the response to Katrina, it's hard to explain the lackluster response seen so far in the wake of Sandy.

In an area with a population in the 10's of millions, the most obvious foreseeable problems are power outages and access to heat, food and water.  FEMA should have had multiple semi loads of generators on standby, ready to ship out to affected areas at a moment's notice, as well as truckloads of non-perishable food items and fuel.  In no way should it have taken a week (so far) to get those supplies out.  (Hell, radio host Glenn Beck had two tractor-trailer loads of supplies ready to go a couple days before the storm hit and they were on their way to the northeast as soon as it was safe for them to travel)  Just getting generators in to the city of NY and the municipalities of NJ would have gone a long way towards mitigating the scope of the problems now experienced.  If they had power, gas stations would be able to pump.  If they could pump, people wouldn't have to wait in hours long lines to get fuel for their generators.  That would enable them to keep their food from spoiling, keep the lights on, and even power space heaters to protect against the chill 40-degree temperatures.  So far, FEMA has sent precious few generators, and with 2 out of 3 gas stations without power in NYC and NJ, even finding gas to power the generators is difficult.

The bottom line is that if you continue to put your faith in institutions and people outside yourself, you will inevitably be disappointed.  No government can provide everything, for everybody, in any situation, at all times.  Whether it's Democrat or Republican (or Green or Libertarian), government has it's place and it has a role to fill but ultimately it's up to you to be sure you do what you can to take care of yourself and your family and to be prepared for emergencies.  The Boy Scout motto is: "Be Prepared".  It used to be a defining characteristic of the American people.  I think it's time we regained that sense of independence and preparedness.  Before the next "Storm of the Century" arrives. 

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