Fire and flood. We call them natural disasters, but a closer look suggests a human hand at work as well. Three years before Katrina hit the gulf coast, Mike Parker, the former head of the Army Corps of Engineers, warned that the levees, which crumbled under the impact of the hurricane, were bound to give way one day. To support his plea for funds to repair them, he brought samples of the corroded steel supports to his White House superiors. “It doesn’t matter if a terrorist blows the lock up or if it falls down because it disintegrates,” Parker told the director of the Office of Management and Budget. “Either way it’s the same effect, and if we let it fall down, we have only ourselves to blame.” The response from an indifferent and irresponsible administration was to force Parker’s resignation.
So it is with the firestorm that raged across San Diego County and environs this past fall. In 2003, a series of wildfires devastated large parts of the same Southern California countryside, sweeping across nearly 300,000 acres (680 miles), destroying more than 2,800 buildings, most of them homes, and killing 16 people. Surely it should have been no surprise to local officials when, exactly four years later, fires driven by the same Santa Ana winds swept across the same forested land dried by drought, its dense underbrush like a tinderbox waiting for the right spark, and turned more than 500,000 acres (786 miles) and nearly 1,700 homes into ash as it ravaged everything in its path.
True, forest fires happen naturally in such a landscape. But they’re made measurably worse by the politics of the region where growth and development in the rugged wild lands that surround the cities have continued unabated with no serious regulation or oversight—no building codes that mandate the use of fire-resistant materials, no restrictions against the kind of residential density that feeds the flames, no requirement for cleared areas to provide a perimeter defense against the flames.
In fact, a ballot initiative that sought to regulate growth in the canyons and backcountry after the 2003 conflagration, went down to a resounding defeat with no small assist from the developers, real estate interests, and the local politicians who are beholden to them. And shortly before the wildfires of 2007 again laid waste to the land and the homes of families who live there, county supervisors endorsed a “shelter in place” strategy that permits developers to build fire-resistant structures in the same high fire-risk backcountry without requiring them to provide the roads needed to ensure safe evacuation.
Just as public policy—or the lack of it—helped to create or, at the very least, worsen these natural disasters, so, too, we have a hand in how we respond to them—a response, I might add, that says a good deal about who we are and what we value.
Remember Katrina? Remember how the evacuees—all of them poor and...
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