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Operation Eden Blog

December 10, 2005

Eight years, Two Americas (quoted in its entirety, but go to the link and check out the amazing picture(s)!!!!!!!

You are going to have a government. Recognize that there’s no way around it. No matter your political preference. No matter your religious affiliation. No matter how libertarian or anarchist you think you’d like to be, you aren’t getting away from a government. It’s a fact of life made necessary by a multitude of competing human interests, local, national, and international. Governments will be constituted to deal with these competing interests. Deal with that.

The question of how our American government would be constituted was roughly settled a little over 200 years ago. The only question we’re left to manage today is how effective we want our government to be. How competent. How reasonable. How efficient. How responsive, and to who. Some people can’t seem to understand this. When I complain about the current sorry quality of our government, even if only filtered through the lens of the Katrina disaster, and how it’s affected my people, I get the occasional comment like this:

“The only thing I haven’t seen here, is Hey! America doesn’t owe you a damn thing! Yep, it all sucks! There’s no doubt about that… We have a bunch of disasters in Minnesota and N.Dakota..snow and ice storms that take out our power for weeks at a time, floods that take out whole cities and blah blah blah and the ones who help for real are ourselves! our friends, families and neighbors. Not the government!”

Now, the particulars in these comments change from time to time, but the overall gist is always the same. Every man for himself. The best you can hope for is help from neighbors. Your government isn’t responsible for helping you. What these people think government is responsible for, they never say. But I’m glad this person half-assedly referred to the Red River Flood of 1997 in particular, because it can remind us all just how low our government’s been brought, in such a short time. We can compare what an effective, competent 1997 FEMA looked like before it was gutted, neutered, a foppish good-old boy installed asleep at its 2005 controls…

I happened to live in Minnesota when the Red River spilled its banks, totally flooding Grand Forks, North Dakota, and East Grand Forks, Minnesota, which were protected by dikes that were built too low to hold back the unprecedented level of water. Please note that at no time during this catastrophe did it ever occur to me to think “Fuck them, they shouldn’t live in a flood plain. Fuck them, only 20% of them carried flood insurance. Fuck them, it’s going to cost billions of taxpayer dollars to rebuild them.”

I remember how quick the federal response was, how FEMA had already been on the ground preparing for the possibility of a flood, and how the President was there on the ground, the very next day, meeting with local officials and citizens.

I’m not the only one that remembers how different the federal response was to the Red River Flood in 1997, compared with hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune ran a piece by Ashley Shelby, author of Red River Rising: The Anatomy of a Flood and the Survival of an American City, back in mid September. It seems the original article has disappeared down the memory hole, so I’ll quote it in full here, it’s very enlightening.

Another flood, another FEMA

In 1997, in what many consider to be the biggest mistake in the modern history of the National Weather Service, the city of Grand Forks, N.D., was nearly wiped off the map in a catastrophic flood.

The Red River of the North breached dikes that had been built, and reinforced, to hold back a 52 foot flood (the National Weather Service had predicted a 49 food flood, but the city and Corps of Engineers had added an extra 3 feet of freeboard in case of unexpected hydrological events). Instead, the waters of the Red River came roaring down the channel at Grand Forks at a whopping 54 feet.

The river poured into the city, deluging the historic downtown, annihilating entire neighborhoods and sparking a fire in the downtown core. Historic buildings burned while drowning in fetid river water.

Due to a complex mistake in the National Weather Service’s hydrological model, amplified by freakish behavior of the river itself, the city of Grand Forks was nearly destroyed. It was, at the time, classified as the eighth-worst natural disaster in U.S. history. By failing to correctly predict the flood crest, the federal government, many outraged and heartbroken Grand Forks citizens said then, had failed them — and had ruined their lives.

But before this resentment could fester, Bill Clinton, FEMA Director James Lee Witt, and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala rolled into town. Witt’s team had, in fact, had been in Grand Forks in the weeks leading up to the flood, urging homeowners to enroll in the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program. FEMA officials were familiar figures in town.

Before arriving in Grand Forks, Clinton had authorized FEMA to provide 100 percent of the direct federal assistance for all of the emergency work undertaken by federal agencies in the disaster zones (the normal reimbursement rate is 75 percent).

The National Guard had been mobilized months earlier — its ranks full and available to the people it served — and was responsible for a huge percentage of preparedness activities before the flood. It was responsible for executing the remarkable evacuation of Grand Forks (until New Orleans, the largest evacuation of an American city since Atlanta in the Civil War) and provided immediate search and rescue support as the floodwaters deluged the city.

James Lee Witt’s FEMA performed like a well-oiled machine in Grand Forks and the entire Red River Valley after the flood, though many citizens grumbled about red tape and the endless lines they had to stand in to sign up for aid. Maybe it was “big government,” but FEMA did not hesitate to move in as soon as the National Weather Service warned the people of the Red River Valley that they’d see more water than they’d ever seen in their lives (much like the National Hurricane Center’s extraordinary warnings that Katrina could cause “human suffering incredible by modern standards”).

Witt’s FEMA began canvassing Grand Forks almost immediately after the city was evacuated. Trailers were brought in for displaced residents. The famous FEMA trailer christened “Red October” arrived soon after — one of FEMA’s mobile emergency-response support units, outfitted with more than a dozen computers wired with Internet access, a satellite communications system, a radio system and 48 phone lines, including dedicated lines to the White House and the Pentagon. The U.S. Department of Energy immediately announced an action plan to restore power systems in North Dakota, and deployed personnel to help cities get their systems back online.

Grand Forks, like any other American city, deserved nothing less than this immediate response; but thinking back to the overwhelming and rapid government response to the ’97 Red River floods leads one to wonder how it is possible that New Orleans, a major U.S. population center, received absolutely nothing in the first days — forget hours — after the worst disaster in American history?

Why were President Bush’s FEMA officials paralyzed when Bill Clinton’s FEMA was in Grand Forks months before the ’97 flood? Why were people left to suffer and die in the New Orleans convention center — a situation FEMA Director Michael Brown didn’t even know about until days later — when Grand Forks evacuees had cots and, very soon after, trailers to live in?

Certainly it’s true that Grand Forks is a much smaller city than New Orleans; but going by that logic, New Orleans’ status as a major metropolitan area would guarantee it a governmental response at least twice that given to a North Dakota city. In fact, New Orleans received barely a fraction of the attention and rescue support that Grand Forks received for a disaster that, although tremendous, now pales in comparison to that suffered by the people of New Orleans.

Beyond the basics of food and shelter, and a competent governmental response, the people of New Orleans also were in want of perhaps the most important capital in the currency of recovery: hope.

“You bring us hope,” Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens tearfully told President Clinton at a press conference soon after the dikes were overtopped.

“It may be hard to believe,” Clinton replied then, “But you can rebuild stronger and better than ever.”

Compare these words to Bush’s comments upon landing in New Orleans, where a disaster of unimaginable proportions had just occurred, where bodies lay rotting outside the convention center because aid had not reached them in time: He joked about his visits to New Orleans during his alcoholic days when he had “sometimes too much” fun in the French Quarter. Dennis Hastert chose to comment publicly on his belief that much of New Orleans would be “bulldozed.” Rep. Richard Baker, of Baton Rouge, was reported by the Wall Street Journal to have said to lobbyists, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

The contrast between the indifferent response from the Bush administration in the hours and days after Katrina and the rapid and seemingly heartfelt response of the Clinton administration in Grand Forks could not be clearer.

Why did Grand Forks deserve a better response to a catastrophic natural event than New Orleans? Some may argue that Grand Forks’ largely white population may have something to do with it, and perhaps it does. But I think the more likely answer is that the administration in charge of the federal government in 1997, for all its faults, was not only better equipped to deal with a natural disaster; it was also a team that felt, at core, a fundamental empathy for American citizens who had lost everything through no fault of their own. The dearth of such empathy in the current administration — one in which the president refuses to attend military funerals resulting from a war he started — is chilling and, ultimately, telling.

I’ve said it before, I’m not a Democrat, I’m not a Republican. I’m an American, and I’ve got enough common sense to know when my government’s been hijacked by incompetents, and when that state of incompetence makes me, and my family, less safe. And what my common sense has been telling me was confirmed in spades when Katrina roared ashore, drowning my hometown, while the incompetents vacationed, or shopped, or debated whether or not to roll up their shirt sleeves at photo ops.

My common sense tells me that I’d be far better off in the America that helped Grand Forks in 1997, not the America that says “We don’t owe you a damn thing” to New Orleans in 2005. What a difference eight years makes. Which America do you want to live in?

Further reading:
Wikipedia: Red River Flood, 1997
CNN: Clinton Tours Flood-Ravaged North Dakota
FEMA Website: Five Years After The Flood: Grand Forks Rebuilds As A Safer, Better Place To Live
Wikipedia: James Lee Witt
Slate: Bush longs for James Lee Witt, the Clinton man he should have kept.
Amazon: Red River Rising: The Anatomy of a Flood and the Survival of an American City


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