Politics & Policy

Hurricane Irene: When Government Works

State and local governments did what they are paid to do.

If there was a single defining moment during Hurricane Andrew in 1992, it was when Kate Hale, director of Dade County Emergency Management, stood in front of a nationally televised news conference and exclaimed, “Where the hell is the cavalry?” Quite clearly, local and state government had broken down, and the federal government was proving of little help. Well, that was true until President Bush the First heard Hale’s plea and ordered the 82nd Airborne and 10th Mountain Divisions to deploy to Florida. Forty-eight hours later the military was on the ground in force, and further crises were averted.

In Louisiana, during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there was a similar localized breakdown of government, followed by a collapse of civil order. Once again, the 82nd Airborne left Fort Bragg, this time ordered out by President Bush the Second, and within 96 hours completely reversed what had been a rapidly deteriorating situation. Of course, not all local governments failed. In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry managed an efficient response despite an area of devastation almost as great as Louisiana’s. Not only did Perry refrain from screaming for the Army, he also opened his state to hundreds of thousands of refugees that Louisiana could not care for. Similarly, Gov. Haley Barbour in Mississippi led a superb response and never pushed the panic button.

As Hurricane Irene made its way along the coast I did my best to judge the various local responses. After several days of watching, all I can say is, “Job well done.” If I was to grade the event, everyone gets an A+.

Let’s take stock. A major hurricane, over 700 miles wide, slowly moved through an area containing over a quarter of the entire population of the United States. At no point during the several days the storm wracked the East Coast was there any sign of panic or any breakdown of civil order. Everywhere one looked, from governors on down to town mayors and county councilmen, government officials were doing what they are paid to do.

Hardworking firemen, policemen, and other emergency-services personnel deserve even more kudos. Many of these persons worked double and triple shifts during the worst of the storm, again doing exactly what we expect of them. How many lives were saved or burdens eased by these selfless professionals will never be known. But that many people are alive today who would not be if not for their services is an undoubted fact.

It is also worth taking note of what did not happen during Hurricane Irene. No governor or emergency-services director got in front of the cameras and cried for help. Unneeded, the U.S. Navy evacuated Norfolk and sent the Atlantic Fleet to sea, in a successful bid to keep it away from the worst of the storm. Although I assume the soldiers at Fort Bragg and Fort Drum were leaning forward and fully prepared to deploy when called for, the call never came. The magnificent soldiers of the 82nd Airborne and 10th Mountain remained in their barracks, and out of the rain.

When I listened to the FEMA director speak around noon on Sunday, all she could do was encourage people to listen to their local authorities, and report that FEMA was coordinating with the locals to offer assistance as needed. It appears the locals had learned from Katrina: In times of crisis, FEMA is nothing more than a checkbook. For the really hard work, look to yourselves.

At one moment during the crisis, I actually felt bad for President Obama. With his presidency floundering and even his supporters publicly questioning his competence, he rushed back from his vacation to personally manage the federal response. Instead, he sat in the White House being briefed on the same information the rest of us were getting from newscasts. Because the locals were up to the job, the president’s moment to shine never arrived.

And let’s not forget the private sector. With a ruthless efficiency that can be bred only in a competitive capitalist system, firms such as Walmart and Home Depot moved hundreds of thousands of tons of supplies into stores throughout the stricken areas. Did they make a profit? Of course they did. But they also made it possible for families all along the coast to eat and otherwise prepare for the storm. And guess what — the profits those firms and many others make will ensure that they are even better prepared to meet the next crisis.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the bravery, skill, and dedication of those working for power companies. In many cases they were out in the worst of the storm already working to restore power to stricken areas. A personal thank you to whoever it was who restored power to my house after only five hours in the dark.

Americans all along the East Coast have just seen a remarkable example of how government is supposed to work. In fact, the biggest complaint being heard as the storm passed is that local governments may have overreacted. As there is no way to count the bodies of those not killed, we can never know if this is true. However, if the worst one can say about government is that in the face of a 700-mile-wide hurricane it erred on the side of caution, then all I can say is: Great job all around.

For this, I don’t mind paying taxes!

— Jim Lacey is the author of The First Clash and Keep from All Thoughtful Men.


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