Our Own Private Disasters

Terrance Heath

Last month, in one week, the DC Metro Area was hit with an earthquake (5.9 on the Richter scale) and the remnants of Hurricane Irene. This week, we’re being it with heavy rains (a month’s rain in a week, according to the Baltimore Sun), from tropical storm Lee, and we’re being warned about dangerous flooding in the region. (It’s already started in some places.) Meanwhile, tropical storms Katia and Maria are joining forces in the Gulf.

The disasters themselves are nerve-wracking enough. The added worries about potential damage and personal safety is what makes them really scary. What’s even scarier? In the tea-party-conserva-tarian dystopia of the future — where there is no more public sector, and there are no more public workers — we may be on our own in the face disasters like these if Eric Cantor has his way on disaster relief funding. (Today’s Eric Cantor, not Eric Cantor circa 2004.)

In a column defending public workers, spotlighting those who went above and beyond the call of duty during 9/11 and its aftermath, Katrina vanden Heuvel asks us to imagine that day — and recent natural disasters — without the public workers.

Firefighter Joseph A. Mascali, FDNY - One of New York's Bravest Remembered

Two thousand and eleven has been one of the toughest years for public workers that I can remember. Every month until this past one, the private sector has added jobs, and every month the public sector has lost them. The August employment report shows that the public sector got hit hard again — losing 17,000 jobs. In states across the country, public workers aren’t just being laid off; they’re being made into economic scapegoats. These workers deserve to be treated fairly any time. But in the wake of Hurricane Irene, as we watched teams of federal, state and local government workers tirelessly saving lives, and on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, they deserve much better.

The last decade has been marked by both peril and possibility, and in all of it there has been no shortage of American heroes. Many, if not the vast majority, worked for the government — as firefighters and police, as teachers and rescue workers. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, men and women proudly wore hats and shirts labeled “FDNY” and “NYPD.” When we wept for our nation, it was the bravery of the first responders that reminded us of our national character. There was a newfound respect for public service and a heartening change in how Americans viewed their government. Fire and police departments, and organizations such as the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, saw a surge in applicants. We didn’t just want to believe in those workers. We wanted to be them.

In the 10 years since, those and other public workers haven’t been any less heroic or any less essential. But they have been significantly less appreciated, even demonized. “There are a lot of government employees that need to go find a real job,” Rep. Paul Broun (Ga.), a Tea Party favorite, snorted in June. For too many on the right, a government worker isn’t a worker at all.

It’s hard to imagine what government would be like in the face of crisis were the Tea Party in control of more than just the House of Representatives. Would it have defunded the National Weather Service, making it impossible to know where the hurricane would hit and who would need to flee from harm’s way? Would it have defunded the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as one of their heroes, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), has called for, and instead opted to “be like 1900,” as he described it? If the Tea Party had its way, might there have been too few first responders on 9/11?

Actually, I have to differ with vanden Heuvel there. It’s not hard to imagine at all. There isn’t a government agency outside of the Pentagon that the tea-party-conserva-tarians would keep around if they had a chance. No government jobs, outside of their own and maybe their staffers’, that they wouldn’t kill at the first opportunity. It doesn’t take much to picture it.

There will be no National Weather Service. Republicans have alredy tried to defund it out of existence. If they ever succeed there will be no public service tracking or warning of disasters like hurricane or tsunamies. There may be some fee-based private subscription services that would provide alerts to their customers, but those who can’t afford those services will have no reliable source of warning. It’s hard to imagine that a charitable service will develop to fill this void, as the need for such services is unpredictable.(Sure, there’s the Red Cross, but even they can’t be everywhere. Plus, charities have been hit hard by the recession and its impact on spending, and even a huge charity like the Red Cross isn’t recession proof.

Thousands of small U.S. charities are likely to close this year as cautious donors and governments tighten spending and some states consider removing nonprofit tax breaks, experts said on Wednesday.

The nonprofit sector is preparing for this year to be harder than 2009 as the delayed effects of the worst U.S. recession hits philanthropic budgets, experts said during a panel discussion on "The New Nonprofit Reality."

…"The nonprofit sector is like the caboose … of the economy, so we often go over the cliff last and then we stay over the cliff even after the economy starts going up the other way," said Ken Berger, president and chief executive of Charity Navigator, which evaluates the nation’s big charities.

"The teeny-weeny, little local community-based, grass-roots charities are hitting a brick wall."

So, no charity, or at least a lot less of it. Some states may have their own services, but there’s just a much of a chance that many won’t. So, how much of a warning you get — if any — will depend on (a) if you could afford to pay for the service or (b) if you live in a state that has its own agencies that do what federal agencies use to, then you might be in luck. But if you don’t, and don’t know anyone who subscribed to an early warning service who is willing to share that information with you (parasite that you are), you may be out of luck.

Think of it as Titanic-style disaster aid: First  class customers first.

Those who have their own transportation, and subscribe to warning services will be able to get themselves out of harm’s way. Those who have neither would be denounced as deserving heir fate — as were those left behind in Katrina’s, even as the waters rose around them — for the moral failure of  not having the means to get themselves out of harm’s way.

There is the possibility that private firms might find it profitable to provide evacuation services, possibly the same ones that provide the early warning subscription services.In fact, this could be a lucrative new market for the insurance industry. Buy one policy to repair the damage after disaster, and by an extra policy to get you away from the disaster.

Membership cards could guarantee holders seats on buses that would take them out of harms way. There may even be an opportunity for different levels of subscription there. A platinum membership could get you a private car and driver to deliver you to a reserved hotel suite, far from the ravages of the storm, flood, hurricane or other disaster. A gold membership might get you a seat on a shuttle van and room (not a suit) in a cheaper hotel. A silver membership could get you a seat on bus, and an even cheaper hotel room. And a bronze membership could get you a ticket on a crowded bus that drops you just beyond disaster’s reach, leaving you to your own devices from there.

The price for platinum and gold memberships could also include the tolls for the private roads that would provide a more direct and less crowded route to safety than the what’s left of the old, unmaintained, formerly public roads. That is, the ones profitable enough to privatize, because they’re in or lead to poorer areas where few paying customers live.

Failing that, there could be a private market for shelters were you can ride out the storm in relative comfort. Family or group rates could make it more affordable. Package deals could even include entertainment and meals, while those customers who aren’t gold members could pay for available tickets.

For the rest, who can afford none of this, some states may provide shelters and transportation to them, while others might provide shelters but no transportation, etc. Some, of course, will provide nothing at all, perhaps using the same justification heard during Katrina: if people lack them means to save themselves, it serves them right, and they don’t deserve saving. Their plight instead should serve as a teachable moment for young people. The lesson: Don’t be poor.

And in all of these situations, the employees of private disaster relief services would be perfectly justified in leaving people to their fates. Just as they’d be justified in letting someone’s house burn down.

And this was a guy who just forgot to make a payment.Imagine a private disaster relieve service leaving you sitting on the roof of your house as the waters rise, because you can’t afford the service and thus aren’t on their customer list. Maybe they’d offer an "on-site rescue" service for a sizeable one-time fee (because they’re not a charity, you know), if there’s room in the boat/bus after subscribing customers are taken care of, naturally.

If not, well, that’ll be a lesson to you if you survive and make it down on the roof.

Public workers were on the front line during hurricane Irene aiding residents and keeping their communities safe during the storm — some even lost their lives doing so. Governors, even Republican governors, praised the federal government’s response. All in all, the federal governmetn worked pretty well. (So did state governments.)

The Irene government would seem to have its benefits. Before the storm struck, 18 FEMA teams deployed from Florida to Maine, repositioning as the emphasis moved to New England. Food, water, generators and tarps were in place along the storm’s path. In Vermont, when the storm forced evacuation of the state emergency operations center, the workers relocated to a FEMA facility. In North Carolina, FEMA provided in-the-dark local authorities with generator power. And everywhere, FEMA, given new authority by Congress after Katrina, didn’t have to wait for states to request help.

“We have to go fast; we have to base it upon the potential impacts,” Fugate said Monday, describing the Irene response. “That’s why we look at these forecasts we get from the hurricane center, and we make the decisions based upon what the potential impacts could be. If you wait till you know how bad it is, it becomes harder to change the outcome.”

That’s one model. The other model is to have a weak federal government, without the funds to forecast storms or to launch a robust emergency response in time to do any good. You might call that the Tea Party model.

In the tea party model, there are no public sector and no public workers who will rescue people regardless of their ability to pay.Those aren’t "real jobs" anyway, as far as Republicans are concerned.

It doesn’t matter that you go to a workplace, perform a task or service, and earn a paycheck for that performing task or service. It’s possible you still don’t have a "real job." Just like not all Americans are "real Americans," not all jobs are "real jobs." That’s what Republicans mean when they say "government doesn’t create jobs."

Boehner’s off-the-cuff remarks. reminded me of a long debate that I once had with a libertarian conservative, who insisted that the government couldn’t create jobs. As it went on, our discourse revealed that his arguments were based on the assumption that jobs created by government can’t really be jobs, because government jobs — and jobs created or subsidized by government — are not "real jobs," and "real jobs" are only created in the private sector. If it’s not done for profit, it’s not a "real job," and probably doesn’t need doing and shouldn’t be done in the first place.

In their model, there’s no FEMA, because Republicans in congress defunded it through neglect, and we’ve "come to our senses" and gone backwards in time to 1900, when the Hurricane of 1900 killed somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 people, compared to Irene’s meager body-count of 40.

In their model, there’s no volunteer fire department when massive wildfires destroy 1,400 homes in the middle of  a seven-month-drought and the hottest summer on record, because you slashed your state’s volunteer fire department’s funding by 75%, and decided to pray for rain, and criticize the federal response instead, leaving your state to deal with the cost of the fires later

Texas Wildfires [Image 6 of 9].

In their model, there will be no police force. It would have been zeroed out of the budget.Because, as former Mexican president Ernersto Zedillo told wealthy Mexicans who complained about violence and kidnapping, "The taxes you don’t pay are the security you don’t have."  Of course, the police force could become a a subscription-based sevice. But would a private police force then stand by and watch a crime committed and nothing to stop it, if called by someone who wasn’t a paying customer? Would this be the case regardless of the crime? Burglary? Rape? Murder? Citizens who can hire their own police may be alright. Others who have means will simply move to safer areas. The rest of us will be on our own in a lawless "state of nature."

Journalists Protest against rising violence during march in Mexi

In the tea party model, we’ll all be on our own, with our own private disasters.

Comments