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.

"...and your little dog, too!"
Carnival of the Trackbacks XXX


  1. texaskatey September 24, 2005
  2. Steel Turman September 24, 2005
  3. jocrazy0 September 24, 2005
  4. Drew Edmondson September 24, 2005
  5. jeff September 24, 2005
  6. eLarson September 24, 2005
  7. PTG September 24, 2005
  8. B Moe September 24, 2005
  9. CroolWurld September 24, 2005
  10. superdestroyer September 24, 2005
  11. Jake September 24, 2005
  12. writeaway September 24, 2005
  13. Bryan C September 24, 2005
  14. Vulgorilla September 24, 2005
  15. salt1907 September 24, 2005
  16. jpm100 September 24, 2005
  17. fatman September 24, 2005
  18. Will Franklin September 25, 2005
  19. ed September 25, 2005
  20. Jeff Harrell September 25, 2005
  21. giromide September 25, 2005
  22. paul in Friendswood September 25, 2005
  23. fiona September 25, 2005