Disaster Relief, Rich and Poor

Disaster Relief, Rich and Poor

A couple days ago I was getting my hair cut and the TV was showing scenes from the [tag]California fires[/tag]. People were commenting on the apparently high value of the houses they were seeing. One man was noting that he hadn’t seen any houses worth less than a million dollars. (We should nominate him for tax assessor somewhere! I actually have no idea of the value of the homes shown, nor do I know how representative the ones on TV were of the entire fire area.) Another suggested that we take a collection to take them some Dom Perignon, since they obviously wouldn’t accept bottled water.

The key theme was the difference in the response to fires in California and the response to Hurricane Katrina, and Ivan and Dennis in the two years before. The consensus of the barber shop was that because the Californians were rich, they were getting better treatment that us poor folks here on the gulf coast.

Now I do believe that there is a tendency to forget the poor, and that our perceptions impact the energy and efficiency of our responses. Any such differences should be corrected. I was pretty critical of government response at various levels at the time of Katrina.

At the same time, I think we should consider some things carefully before we throw stones–or bottles of Dom Perignon.

  1. California is not Louisiana and Governor Schwarzenegger is not Governor Blanco. I don’t mean to put down the state of Louisiana, and I’m pretty sure I’ve made an equal number of snide remarks about California, but it appears California is acting more quickly and more effectively. This is subject to correction in time, but that’s what it looks like right now, and no, I’m not a Republican.
  2. Rich peoples’ houses burn just as nicely as poor peoples’ houses, or they drown, or tornadoes chew them up. It’s pretty silly to criticize people for being prepared.
  3. A fire is not a hurricane. There is a great difference in the accessibility of disaster areas in California.
  4. There are many more large communities that are not themselves under disaster conditions. That makes a big difference in evacuation distances and places to house people temporarily as well as in support supplies. When Katrina came through I was on the outer edge, in tropical storm winds, and I live in Pensacola, FL. Take a look at the map. There was nowhere along that stretch of the gulf coast to which one could evacuate. It was north, north, north.
  5. We hoped–at least I hoped–that criticisms following Katrina would be constructive and would result in better responses to future disasters. Is it right to complain if people respond more effectively to a new disaster?

(For what it’s worth, while I was writing this I saw Governor-Elect Bobby Jindal commenting on the need to get free enterprise growing in New Orleans. More power to him in that effort.)

I in no way intend to excuse the failures during Hurricane Katrina, nor do I ever excuse treating the poor as second class citizens. But it is also inappropriate to treat the rich with less compassion, or to look down on the well prepared. Be envious, yes, just envious enough to make better preparations next time.

There will presumably be lessons to learn from this disaster, but good disaster response is something to be celebrated.

6 thoughts on “Disaster Relief, Rich and Poor

  1. As a West Virginian I am sensitive to state stereotypes. And I thought I had it bad until I married a Californian. The assumptions made about California are simply absurd. Thank you for highlighting this aspect of the fires. I too have heard these comments. Let us instead pray for God’s mercy and the speedy recovery of the victims in California.

  2. I think your points are very valid, but there’s one more that I think is pretty big: we San Diego learned a lot from the Cedar fire that happened a few years ago.

    That was a major fire, and its absolutely clear to me having been through both fires that we learned a lot about what to do this time around. Air support was better, information dissemination was better, I think the way evacuations were handled was much smarter and more effective, and I think resources became available to people much faster.

  3. I would agree that learning from the previous fire would be another factor. Thanks for pointing it out. I’m guessing that the federal folks have learned a bit from Katrina as well.

    It sounds like you’re in the area. Hopefully the fact that you’re commenting means you’re OK!

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