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Apocalypse, now?

October 30, 2012, at 1:12 AM
A soldier looks out form his military vehicle as Hurricane Sandy wallops lower Manhattan on Oct. 29.

A soldier looks out form his military vehicle as Hurricane Sandy wallops lower Manhattan on Oct. 29. Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

It turns out that apocalyptic fantasies aren't limited to Hollywood, or to the actual apocalypse or the top secret continuity of government exercises that the federal government likes to hold. The reason why they capture our imagination is that the best of them are uncannily close to reality. Even in the 21st century, in the most powerful country the universe has ever known, layers of civilization are very fragile.

And human beings are incredibly resilient. Even Americans! Those of us who are privileged to enjoy the comfort of a couch now must be able to evacuate our homes with no notice, have money secured on our person with no notice, seek emergency shelter without direction, provide for ourselves 72 hours of food and water without electricity, restaurants, or stores. We can do this. We can be lazy Americans and incredibly resilient Americans. We can live without luxury or running water for a week, or power for two weeks, and then go back to our lives as soon as civilization is restored. This does a few things. It gives us a better appreciation for those who live in, say, the favelas of Brazil or the slums near garbage dumps in Managua. A little more empathy is good. There is a limiting condition, though. It is that we have strong, central, state, and federal governments who have built into the fiscal calendar a capacity to keep capital flowing after disasters. Those same governments are able to mobilize tens of thousands of people whose job it is to keep us from permanently living in a way that barely does justice to human dignity. As much as we can rely on the private sector to restock our refrigerator, oil wouldn't get to trucks, trucks wouldn't get to cold food, cold food wouldn't get to well-built, still-standing supermarkets with employees who are healthy and independent enough to work, none of this would happen without the competent administration of government.

My argument is predictable, right? Obviously, emergency service is something that government can do and should do. No one would dispute that, right? Well, I think some people would dispute that — the argument that states can fend for themselves without government-coordinated disaster assistance is lunacy and fairly commonly held. But a greater fallacy bothers me. It is that somehow, emergency response is a discrete function of government, one that can be separated from the rest, from the other stuff that bothers many of us, like regulation and welfare programs. It just isn't. And despite every (good) reason we have to mistrust government, the fact that so many of us can survive a catastrophic storm like this now depends upon our subconscious acceptance of government expertise, and even our grudging willingness to listen to people with big egos telling us what to do. 

This unique combination of resilience, faith in government, and government itself saves lives. And a consequence of deliberately fostering mistrust in government is that fewer people will heed warnings to evacuate, fewer people will listen to FEMA when it advises and urges and begs people to be able to exist without any help for 72 hours, fewer people will care about what Mayor Bloomberg says or what President Obama advises. 

Big government has some musts, too. 

Everyone from the top down, including the president, has to (a) err on the side of being overly cautious, (b) be willing to be transparent about mistakes, (c) take responsibility for them, either by losing elections or publicly taking the blame for them, (d) communicate without hedging, and be humble, and (e) be willing to admit that there are limits to what any government can do during an emergency.

And here, government still falls down. The federales have done a pretty poor job in acknowledging that the failure of the Army Corps of Engineers' levees were the, THE, reason for the majority of death and destruction in New Orleans. New Orleanians know it, but the government still obsesses over who from Region 8 of the Department of Housing and Urban Development ought to get a call from a supervisor when situation "X" happens.  As much as we like to make fun of disaster preparedness, with its acronyms and power points, we also have to acknowledge something profound, which is that these big institutions can actually learn from their mistakes and can make decisions that save millions of lives. If climate change is functionally changing the globe's weather, then experts in this area have to evolve themselves to catch up. Since Katrina, FEMA has become an incredibly agile and forward-leaning agency and it never gets credit for it. 

So far, at least as I type this, everything is working as it should. Warnings are dire, but people are heeding them. The devastation is potentially crippling, but folks are acting proactively. The person at ConEd who made the call to pre-emptively shut off power to lower Manhattan so that, when the flood waters recede, it can be restarted much more quickly, deserves a prize of some sort. Yes! Do more of that! Be accountable for your decision, but, yes, be smart about stuff. We can cheer for that. The federal government is working well with its state and local partners, as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will attest. Utilities pre-mobilized thousands of workers. The stock exchange wisely decided that Howard Roark didn't have the power to stop storm surges, and that even the economy can take a break to ride out the storm. Will people lose money? Sure. The right call? Totally. 

I don't live on the East Coast anymore, but I've been following the antics of my friends and family through Facebook and Twitter. Good humor is critical to resiliency, and there is an abundance of it. 

In 24 hours, everything might be different and might be worse. More people might die, perhaps many more. And our capacity as human beings to tolerate sudden and abrupt changes to our lives might be severely tested. What's interesting and kind of profound is that the more people know this in their gut, the better prepared for it they will be, and the better they will respond when (inevitably) things take a turn towards the unknown.

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