Despite a tragic history of regular disasters — earthquakes, hurricanes, bridge collapses and fires — Americans seem unwilling to prepare for the inevitable. This may have something to do with the forty-year conservative assault on government and the resulting skepticism about things that can’t be justified as fighting terrorism.
But local agency response to San Diego’s wildfires shows that despite inadequate resources, government on the ground can, in fact, be good. The firefighters, police and other emergency personnel performed efficiently and heroically. Public officials at the local and state level worked well together to coordinate the firefighting, rescue and relief efforts.
San Diego’s new, widely praised “reverse 911” system, which made thousands of evacuation calls to get residents out of harm’s way early, was developed with Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) Homeland Security funds. Even FEMA — the federal agency that bungled the response to Katrina — showed up quickly and began collecting relief applications.
Local government response to the San Diego fires is a stark rebuke to the claim that government is inherently incompetent — or even unnecessary. But while thousands of volunteers stepped up to help, we cannot plan a primarily volunteer response to major disasters, any more than we can expect volunteers to build our roads or collect our trash. This is why we have government. The only question is whether our public agencies will be adequately funded, equipped and staffed to do the things we need them to do.
What occurred in San Diego tells a bigger story. Preparing our nation for future disasters requires government at all levels to provide the resources we need to save lives and property. We need local, state and national leaders who can articulate a sense of common purpose beyond fighting terrorism — a vision of a nation that builds on hope, not fear. And they have a responsibility to identify the resources we need and to mobilize the public to pay for them.
Unfortunately, as we head into a wide-open presidential election year, none of the candidates are articulating an adequate response to our fundamental challenges. GOP rivals parrot the same old, increasingly irrelevant formula of cutting taxes and dismantling government. And Democrats have yet to go far enough to articulate the critical role of public investment. So far, there are no bold proposals to build a twenty-first century infrastructure that better prepares us for both public disasters and the daily crises facing American families.
The tragic losses of life and property from the San Diego wildfires, Hurricane Katrina, and the recent Minnesota bridge collapse expose a troubling neglect of our nation’s infrastructure. Together, they should be a wake-up call. We have the technology and know-how to protect ourselves. We just lack the political will.
Many disasters, such as hurricanes, fires and earthquakes, are predictable. We may not know when they’ll arrive, but we know they will sooner or later. Other disasters — such as bridge collapses — seem more random, but we know that if bridges aren’t regularly inspected and repaired, some will eventually collapse.
How many lives and how much property damage could have been saved if San Diego had been better prepared for the inevitable fire?
Last year, San Diego fire chief Jeff Bowman resigned, frustrated by the city’s failure to pay for enough firefighters, stations and equipment to serve a growing population. He repeatedly used words like “ill-equipped” and “understaffed” to describe his department. Indeed, after San Diego’s previous major fires — the Cedar and Paradise fires just four years ago — Bowman and others documented that San Diego simply did not have enough equipment and personnel to meet these kinds of challenges.
San Diego leaders have long known about the city’s underfunding for critical infrastructure. A 2005 study by the Center on Policy Initiatives, a local nonprofit think tank, revealed that San Diego’s per capita spending on fire protection is the third lowest among major California cities. In number of firefighters per 1,000 residents, San Diego ranked dead last. According to national firefighting standards, a city San Diego’s size (1.25 million) should have at least twenty-two more stations and 400 more firefighters than it currently has. And in San Diego’s desert climate, resources should be even larger than what standards suggest. The city’s budget director recently estimated a long-term unmet need of $478 million to get to full firefighting capacity and an additional $40 million needed in the city’s $1.1 billion annual operating budget.
As with the neglect and deterioration of the levees in New Orleans’s hurricane-prone region, San Diego let fundamental foundations of emergency preparedness and healthy economic growth fall into disrepair. Public employees and agencies have shown they’ll do their best when duty calls. In the end, though, things we value — like fire protection — aren’t free.
The crises in San Diego, New Orleans and Minnesota are not unusual. They are simply vivid examples of how our chronic public underinvestment is harming the country and putting too many people at risk. Our lack of preparedness in all three disasters meant that people suffered more damage and hardship than they had to. Across America, in rural and metropolitan areas alike, infrastructure is crumbling, public agencies are understaffed and equipment is outdated.
There’s also an opportunity to expose deeper levels of disinvestment in San Diego and across the country that cause day-to-day human-made crises in families, weaken our economy and leave us unprepared to deal with the potentially catastrophic impacts of global warming. We watch dramatic pictures of fires and floods on the news, but we don’t see the invisible, though equally devastating, crises of the millions living without health insurance. We don’t see the lost productivity of young people struggling in underresourced schools or those unable to afford a college education.
We need a national public works plan to help prepare our communities for both major disasters and the day-to-day disasters that undermine our country’s strength and our future. We need to maintain and rebuild our highways, roads, bridges, tunnels, sewers and water delivery systems — the foundations that make commerce and productive regional economies possible. Now more than ever, we need to invest in renewable energy and conservation technologies to offset the environmental and public health impacts of global warming. And we need more schoolteachers, nurses and vocational skills educators to guarantee that the next generation of Americans are educated and trained for citizenship and the workforce. This is what government is supposed to do and, when provided adequate resources, does well.
Even tax-averse San Diego voters may soon recognize that there’s no free lunch; we must take as good care of our common public needs as we do of our own homes.
These investments — along with buying more fire engines in Southern California —reinforcing levees in New Orleans and rebuilding deteriorating bridges in Minnesota and elsewhere — define the essentials of an American infrastructure that only government can address.
Donald Cohen is executive director of the Center on Policy Initiatives, a San Diego-based research and policy center. ©2007 The Nation.