September 12, 2005

You never gave five seconds of thought to the risk of flooding in New Orleans until it became impossible to think about anything else? Me neither. Nor have I given much thought to the risk of a big earthquake along the West Coast — the only one of the top three catastrophes that hasn't happened yet — even though I live and work in the earthquake zone.
Question for Mr. Kinsley: What planet do you live on? I dare you to name anyone who has lived on the West Coast (particularly California), and experienced at least a 6.0+ quake, who does not think about The Big One constantly (ie., 8.0+ on the Richter Scale). I think about it every time I drive under a freeway overpass, or walk next to a brick building, or wake up at 4:00 in the morning. I think about it whenever I see glass or china sitting precariously on a shelf, or turn on a flashlight. Earthquakes are part of the reality of living in LA, and the certainty that a major quake will rattle us again in the near future is something everyone thinks about. And I think its fair for any Angeleno to make the assumption that our government will be accountable in the event some major building or piece of infrastructure isn't seismically capable of withstanding such a shock.

Did I ever think about New Orleans being wiped off the face of the earth because of a flood before August 29, 2005? In all honesty, no; I had never studied the topology of that region. But I assume that many, if not most, Louisianians did, largely because major floods occurred every so often. They had a right to assume their government was looking after them, and that predictable threats, such as the corruption of the levees, were going to be dealt with.

And to simply shrug at a calamity like Hurricane Katrina or the 9/11 attacks and say that it's human nature not to focus in on the problem until its too late is rather lame. The state and local governments knew enough to wargame contingency plans, however ineffectual they turned out to be. The Army Corps of Engineers knew that the levees probably wouldn't be able to survive a Category-4 hurricane as far back as 2000, and the local newspaper predicted the devastation that would occur two weeks ago all the way back in 2002, facts which Kinsley acknowledges. Money was budgeted towards doing something to shore up the levees, but not nearly enough. The people who needed to know knew, but they just couldn't get the people who had the power to do something about it to act accordingly. And that's unforgiveable.

We don't expect government to guarantee that all disasters be averted. But it's not unfair to demand that avoidable, predictable mistakes not be made. And treating FEMA like a patronage cow, the federal version of state boxing or parole boards on which to stack cronies and hacks, is inexcusable.

UPDATE: Reader MK informs me that Michael Kinsley actually was in town for the '94 Northridge quake. I guess the collapse of the 10 Freeway didn't leave much an impression....

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