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America's dirtiest little secret

With the two hurricanes having thoroughly battered our Gulf Coast, it's now obvious that we can no longer pretend a certain emperor has no clothes. A lot of us have known it for a long time, but almost no one has had the guts to say it out loud.

Civil defense in this country is a joke. A bad joke. It's been for decades. And it's on us.

Back in World War II, we at least had a pretense of civil defense. We had mandatory blackout laws, enforced by air-raid wardens who'd go out looking for lights that might be used as landmarks by enemy bombers or submarines. But even that didn't do much; the bombers never came, and the submarines still managed to raise hob along the Atlantic until we got aggressive in fighting them.

After the war, we found ourselves fighting the "Cold War" with the Soviets. And once they possessed the Bomb, the American people were scared. They started demanding protection. And the government, knowing that it was impossible, did what any government would do when the taxpayers start shouting loudly enough: they gave them what they demanded.

Or, at least, something plausible.

So we started building "fallout shelters" in buildings. We instituted the Emergency Broadcast System. And school kids learned how to "duck and cover" in the hopes that their desks would protect them from a bomb.

It was a joke. It was a fraud. Everyone knew that the only defense against a commie nuke was to bend over, put your head between your legs, and kiss your ass goodbye. But "duck and cover" sounded good, so the public clung to it tighter than Linus and his blanket and pretended that we were prepared.

At the same time, the Eisenhower administration started the Interstate Highway project. The roads were labelled for "civil defense," but that was a convenient cover. It was, simply, a commercial project, an attempt to institute the sort of thing as Adolf Hitler had given Germany in the Autobahn. Any civil defense applications would end up being largely incidental (evacuation, moving of troops and equipment, emergency plane landings).

9/11 gave us a warning: our cities were vulnerable. Evacuation simply wasn't a possibility. There is no way that we can get all (or even nearly all) the people out of a city. All they had to do in New York was get the commuters on Manhattan home, and let the residents sit it out -- and it still was a nightmare.

Four years later, Hurricane Katrina showed us that, if we're incredibly lucky, and have a couple days' notice (something lacking on 9/11), we MIGHT get 80% of the people out. But that remaining 20% would have to tough it out -- and accent on the "tough." The utter incompetence and corruption of the local and state officials didn't help, leading to the complete collapse of local authorities and the horror and chaos that descended on the city.

And now Hurricane Rita comes along, like the classic nun-with-a-ruler from Catholic school, smacking the lessons into us. Houston had plenty of warning, and still evacuation was a nightmare. Again, screwups by state and local officials didn't help (for example, not using both directions of the highways for outbound traffic didn't help), but all it did was pound the simple reality home:

Our cities are simply not built to be evacuated in any sort of reasonable time or effort.

In fact, our cities aren't "buit' for anything. The vast majority of them simply grew and evolved with absolutely no rhyme or reason, responding to developing needs and circumstances as events dictate.

And they are certainly not built to be evacuated.

Here's the simple, unvarnished, truth: if there's a crisis that threatens a city, and if there's enough advanced warning, some people will survive. Those people with the means, the intelligence, and/or the luck will get out in time. And those without will simply have to suffer their fate, hunker down, and hope like hell for eventual help from local, state, and federal officials. And for a percentage of those, they are -- for lack of a better term -- are fucked. There are no realistic plans that will actually get nearly everyone out of the way. Just yesterday, disaster experts announced that Boston's own plans were fatally flawed.

I've said before that no government, no lawyer, can protect you from all the possible consequences of your bad decisions. And sometimes, it isn't a matter of a bad decision, but bad luck or fate or God's will or random circumstance or destiny or karma or whatever you want.

In the meantime, though, it's as it always is: the biggest factor in anyone's survival is themselves. Plan ahead. Prepare yourselves. Find an exit route. Then find two or three more in case those get blocked.

The government, at its various levels, will do what it can -- clumsily and inefficiently, as is their wont. But some things are just impossible. And no matter how much money the government spends, no matter which party holds which offices, no matter how many "community activists" and professional rabble-rousers howl in outrage, no matter how many lawyers you have on retainer, no matter how many laws you get passed, they will remain impossible.

Deal with it.


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Comments (23)

Hi Jay,Although th... (Below threshold)

Hi Jay,

Although there were problems with the evacuation of Houston, it is still an amazing fact, and a credit to local, state, and federal officials that a population larger than that of 17 states was evacuated out of the area. I had the opportunity to listen to several of the state's DEM (Disaster Emergency Management) phone calls, and I was impressed.

Problems were discussed, and a solution -- be it water, gas, food, cots, or troops -- was dispatched. Plans are in place to get the gas stations and grocery stores restocked prior to bringing the people back in.

Do NOT lump the Texas officials and their largely effective planning in with that sorry mess in Louisiana.


Dead right on Jay Tea. ... (Below threshold)

Dead right on Jay Tea.

Sometimes somethings are beyond quick and ready fixes.

The ONLY thing any one person can do is do everything possible to insure the survival of him and his.

Everything else is out of his control.

Well, I escaped from Housto... (Below threshold)

Well, I escaped from Houston in my SUV by taking every back road I could plot with my laptop, CoPilot (www.alk.com) mapping software, and Garmin GPS. But during that 13 hour trip (apt. in houston to home in north dallas) I wondered about all those plans of the 60's for evacuating cities in a nuclear war.... and what a farce those plans were. Bottom line (its all Bush's fault...sorry) nah, is that being personally responsible is the only way of making sure that you (me) can get out when plans break down.

I agree with personal respo... (Below threshold)
Drew Edmondson:

I agree with personal responsibily...however isn't there an obligation to assist others? What about that Norman Rockwell America of the boy scout helping the old lady across the street? ...or is she on her own left to her personal responsibility?

At some point we need to ac... (Below threshold)

At some point we need to acknowlege that citizens need a dose of self responsibility when it comes to natural or man made disasters. What I don't understand is how any rational person would not have necessary supplies in their home if they saw a hurricane heading toward them, at least supplies and gas in something more than 3 hours before the evacuation is recomended.

I live in an earthquake zone, in my home I have 6 gallons on bottled water, canned food (and a can opener!), flashlights with fresh batteries, and a hand crank powered radio. I worry about a house fire so I have smoke detectors in all the major areas of the home, and because my kid's room could potentially be cutoff in a fire I have made provisions and thought through what I would need to do. I have a wrench on my gas meter in the event that I need to turn off the gas, and I taught my wife how to do it if I was not at home. I try to be prepared in a number of other ways as well and the government didn't tell me how to do any of this, I took the responsibility myself because in an emergency I will be the first responder.

You can bet your ass that if I lived in an area that could be hit with a hurricane that I wouldn't wait until the day before it happened to get my *hit together. What happened in NO is terrible and there were many failures at all levels but that doesn't take away from the simple fact that a large number of residents sat around and waited for the government to do for them what they themselves should have done before that hurricane hit.

Senior citizens and disabled people who were abandoned by their family members or their caretakers are a special situation and what this disaster has taught us all is that there is a group of people who need special consideration and local governments should consider what plans and processes they should put in place for the future. I have also taken to heart that some of my own neighbors (who are senior citizens) may need some help in an emergency so I have upgraded my own disaster preparedness to take into account that I may find myself in a situation where I have to help my neighbors so I increased my emergency supplies accordingly. Government didn't tell me to do any of this, I took responsibility to do it myself.

You can't plan for everything but that's no excuse for not planning at all. Government is the backstop, individuals are the front line and everyone should think about what you would do in an emergency and prepare accordingly.

The government, at its ... (Below threshold)

The government, at its various levels, will do what it can -- clumsily and inefficiently, as is their wont

In other words, Government is at best a blunt instrument.

I cant find Conelrad on my ... (Below threshold)

I cant find Conelrad on my radio, even though the dial has those little CD emblems at 640 and 1240 AM. And the morphine syrettes have been swiped out of the shelter first aid kits. We are so screwed in the event of a nuke attack.

In the old days, peo... (Below threshold)
B Moe:

In the old days, people didn't build on the coast because they knew that if a hurricane came through they would be shit out of luck. We had uncluttered beaches you could camp on and enjoy without spending a small fortune.

Then the government started underwriting insurance and just flat out giving money to homeowneres and businesses that got harmed by weather and our coastal areas got developed to absurd levels.

The solution is to cut off the money. Welfare is welfare. If you can't afford the risk of living on or developing a coastal area then move to higher fucking ground, it's not the taxpayers problem.

Why would we want to preten... (Below threshold)

Why would we want to pretend the Emperor has no clothes? It's sort of like imagining Helen Thomas . . .

A little nitpick. The "duc... (Below threshold)

A little nitpick. The "duck and cover" films from the 50's came out of the idea that the USSR only had a few nukes at the time and you aim for the centers of metropolitan areas. Thus, the schools in the suburbs faced blast affects and you deal with blast affects by ducking and covering. Once the USSR had more nukes, the idea of duck and cover was abandon.

On civil defense (now called emergency management) had to deal a huge variety of problems to include black outs, chemical spills, tornados, etc. It is probably beyond the capability of any management system to be prefectly ready to deal with all of them.

I am with Katie:Th... (Below threshold)

I am with Katie:

The greatest migration in the history of the US took place and you are complaining everything was not perfect. It might not have been perfect but the mission was accomplished.

Bravo Texas.

"for example, not using both directions of the highways for outbound traffic didn't help"

Sounds easy but the highway is a major artery through Texas. Every on-ramp for 400 miles would have to be barricaded and manned. If it was not done perfectly, many deaths would have occurred from head-on collisions.

An impossible task to accomplish. You should not believe the idiots on TV.

Sometimes I think that Amer... (Below threshold)

Sometimes I think that Americans can be such wimps! The reality is that there was an evacuation of almost 3 million people within a week. Yes, some of them waited for hours and hours, some of them ran out of gas, it was frustrating, it was irritating, but they weren't trudging along the plain in the winter and having to go hunt for food and watching their young babies die.

Yes, it didn't go smoothly, there were solutions to traffic that weren't implemented. But, they got out! And death was minimal, they will go back to their lives within a week.

Yes Jay, some things are just impossible. So help your neighbors that are ill equipped, make your own plans, and be patient knowing that everybody is trying to do the best they can.
Of course there will be mistakes made.

Come on people, don't be such wimps!!

writeaway, I don't think Am... (Below threshold)

writeaway, I don't think Americans really are wimps. Complaining and grumbling is just an American pastime. It only becomes a problem if we get stuck into a feedback loop of pointless emoting. And you can be sure they complained back in the 40's, too. The media of the day was just more concerned about accurately reporting important events than weepily obsessing over them.

I think we'd all be better off if we went back to calling it Civil Defense, too. Disasters and attacks will happen, and we need to be prepared. It's just like any other kind of national defense, and everyone in the country needs to be a part of it. The concept is clear, and it's active.

The modern "Emergency Management" term is completely opposite - indistinct and passive. It implies that someone, somewhere will "manage" away all the bad stuff. We just need to sit back and wait for someone responsible to take care of us. That encourages the wrong mindset right from the start.

(Of course it's very hard to change that mindset when the media opposes it at every turn. And when Administration attempts to encourage preparedness and vigilance are denounced as opportunsitic facist fearmongering.)

Three things that are readi... (Below threshold)

Three things that are readily apparent from these last two hurricanes:

1. The government can't protect you from anything. They show up after the fact to do the clean up.

2. Become self-reliant. Have a plan, and a back-up or two. Have basic supplies. You can't think of every contingency, but food, water, medical supplies come to mind instantly.

3. Own, and become proficient in the use of, firearms. Otherwise, you'll be at the mercy of those who do. If where yuu live won't allow you to own them, then move.

Not only is the government ... (Below threshold)

Not only is the government unable to protect us from nature, it cannot be trusted to rebuild a city. Yesterday's break in the New Orleans levee was a good thing. It is time to abandon that city [or at least most of it] before a real disaster happens - like a levee break when the city is full of people.

Disaster preparedness start... (Below threshold)

Disaster preparedness starts at home.

No, really. It does. Basically it begins with people who live in certain areas have to acknowledge they will be vulnerable to one force of nature or the the other. If you live on the Southern & Southeastern coastline it's hurricanes. In the Southwest, it's earthquakes. In the other parts, it's snow & cold. And terrorists could strike anywhere. People need to acknowledge where they live and accept the risk that comes along with that.

Next any preparedness program the government can offer isn't worth a thing if people don't participate appropriate for where they live. If everyone in N.O. had followed the advice of keeping 3 days food & water on hand, I can't believe it wouldn't have taken the pressure off those who couldn't get to their own stores of food.

Instead people balk at any civil defense motion. Some out of laziness. But some never liked such programs like program because the anti-nuke / anti-war sentiment didn't want anyone to believe such an effort would work. At all. To any degree.

So instead we now stand in the new milenium without any type of disaster preparedness system worth a crap because anyone that doesn't involve participation and cooperation from everyone will never be worth a crap.

Can someone find that case ... (Below threshold)

Can someone find that case of "Troll-Be-Gone" in the spray cans? minnie is back.

Yeah, everything went amazi... (Below threshold)

Yeah, everything went amazingly in Texas...

Sure, it was frustrating, but everyone got out with many many hours to spare. Any stragglers could have made it out. And a direct hit would have elicited a much better response than in Louisiana.

Hmmm.I think the r... (Below threshold)


I think the reason is because automobiles, by their very design and nature, tend to create traffic jams. Each is operated by an individual that may or may not be a competent driver. That may or may not be paying attention. Theoretically there shouldn't be any impediments to quick exist through the interstate highway system. But it only takes a couple of broken-down cars or a few idiots to completely halt traffic. A prime example are people who "rubber-neck", which is a huge problem here in NJ.

Just one small accident or a couple cops stopping someone on the side of the road and you can end up with a 18 mile long backup. I know this because I experience this on 287W a few years ago. 18 frigging miles of bumper to bumper traffic because some idiots have to be more curious about a stupid traffic stop than in going faster.

So what solutions are there? Frankly the only things that would actually make a city evacuation work would be:

1. Build more primary artery roads that lead directoy out of a city in all directions.

2. Begin Contra-Flow immediately and tell anyone thinking of trying to use a primary artery road to head into the city that they're breaking the law and will be arrested, indicted, tried, convicted and imprisoned for not less than 10 years with no parole if they violate the Contra-Flow order.

From what I understand they couldn't start Contra-Flow in Texas because there were too many people heading into Houston.

3. Make greater use of mass transit assets. Which may or may not work depending on the specific system.

4. Spend more money to fully develop computer operated vehicles. Which of course depends on people not keeping older uncomputerized cars on the road or taking the computer driver offline. Frankly I think we're about 5-10 years from this technology being possible and about 20 years from having this practical and ubiqitous.

5. Eliminate automobiles completely from urbanized areas and replace them with an ultra-light personal rail system. Instead of an automobile that runs on tires, have vehicle sized ultra-light rail cars that run on an elevated rail system.

One problem with road systems is that it's difficult to stack them vertically. An ultra-light rail system where the car is suspended from the overhead rail system would probably work pretty well. For one thing you could stack multiple rails vertically within an urban area. This would allow for multiple vertical access points to skyscrapers. Being that these vehicles use a rail system computerized control over these vehicles would be greatly simplified and you could also allow for much higher operating speeds than with human operated cars.

*shrug* I was filling out some details for a novel I'm writing when I came up with this. Sounds like it could work, but then so does everything before someone has to actually do the engineering and building.

But I agree, it's definitely clear that something has to be done or else the next time might be catastrophic in terms of lives lost.

Will, Jake and others who h... (Below threshold)

Will, Jake and others who have totally the wrong idea: No, everyone did not get out. A great many people were simply unable to leave because the roads were jammed.

My roommate's brother lives in Houston, not far from downtown. He packed his girlfriend and their dogs into his car and headed north on Thursday. They were simply unable to get out of town because the roads were jammed. After spending six hours in the car to traverse two miles, they turned around and went back home to ride out the storm. If the hurricane had been an actual disaster, they might have perished not because they didn't want to leave, but because they couldn't leave.

He's a lawyer with lots of disposable income, and he still couldn't get out of town.

The myth that everybody who wanted out got out has got to stop. It simply isn't so.

Not to offend you, Ed, or t... (Below threshold)

Not to offend you, Ed, or to be trollish, but while your ideas are great, you'd have to figure out how to eliminate the influence of automobile manufacturers and oil companies upon all levels of our government, particularly the Federal Government. (Auto companies bought and dismantled many cities' rail car systems in the middle of the last century.)

I suppose we should be impr... (Below threshold)
paul in Friendswood:

I suppose we should be impressed with the evacuation except for one thing: almost no one in Houston needed to evacuate. This was true on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Look at the evacuation maps: the only area in Houston that requires evacuation is along and near the ship channel if a Category 5 hits. The reason for evacuation is to escape the storm surge. The shelters are for those whose house may fail, i.e. nearest the eyewall. Everyone else can just board up and stay put. So, of the 2.5 million that fled about 2 million of them shouldn't have. Again, look at the evacuation maps - www.srh.weather.gov/hgx/tropical/maps.htm

While I was in a mandatory evacuation zone I was unable to get out and so stayed put. To the folks with the backroads theory - they got lucky. When I tried to get out all of the State, FM and even the county roads were backed up.

One thing I learned from all this was NEVER listen to the media people even when they are claiming to tell you what the very important official person said. Listen to the very important official person yourself. Make use of the information supplied by your local governments - never once did I see local media, or even very important official people - put up the evacuation maps and explain them.

The death toll from Katrina... (Below threshold)

The death toll from Katrina (about 1,000 vice 10,000) tells us that people did take care of themselves and others. You might never know it if you only listened to the TV media "News is what happens where the reporters are". A group of people gathered in a school and stocked it themselves - after the hurricane, they checked their neighborhood and helped the old and infirm before the flooding (sorry lost the link). Another family of 20! escaped together in one car (only 50 miles, but enough to get out of danger) Someday someone will write a book on NO and Katrina - and it will be much more encouraging than the picture that the media depicted.






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