NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, February 21st, 2021

The Texas-sized politics of calamity: Disasters put a spotlight on elected officials’ negligence

The inspect­ing big­wigs’ heli­copter land­ed after cir­cling over a bad­ly flood­ed Sacra­men­to Riv­er delta, with Gov­er­nor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown strid­ing up to the tele­vi­sion cam­eras and declaring:

Founder’s Grove Flood Aftermath

The after­math of the 1964 flood­ing in Cal­i­for­ni­a’s Hum­boldt Red­woods State Park (Pho­to: Cal­i­for­nia State Parks)

“My God, this is the worst dis­as­ter to hit Cal­i­for­nia since I became Governor.”

Nat­ur­al and man-made calami­ties can be a dis­as­ter for pres­i­dents, gov­er­nors and may­ors but also, less fre­quent­ly, make their careers.

The deliv­ery of relief is para­mount but so is atti­tude and expres­sion, as Sen­a­tor Ted Cruz of Texas dis­cov­ered leav­ing frozen Hous­ton for sun­ny Can­cun last week.

What­ev­er cuts have been made to it, gov­ern­ment is expect­ed to mit­i­gate “acts of God” and the human caused.

When Cruz vot­ed in the Sen­ate against aid to states strick­en by Hur­ri­cane Hugo, Gov­er­nor Chris Christie of New Jer­sey deliv­ered a warn­ing: Com­ing from a coastal state, Cruz would some­day find him­self com­ing hat in hand for help. The day came five years lat­er when Hous­ton was inun­dat­ed by Hur­ri­cane Harvey.

Pres­i­dent George W. Bush, fly­ing high after his 2004 reelec­tion, was brought to earth by the fed­er­al government’s neg­li­gent and dis­or­ga­nized response when the cat­a­stro­phe of Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na hit New Orleans.

He flew over the city, then told his crony, the over­matched FEMA boss Mike Brown: “Brown­ie, you’re doing a heck­u­va job.” He wasn’t.

Buck pass­ing is instant­ly rec­og­nized, such as when Texas Gov­er­nor Greg Abbott went on Fox News last week and tried to blame green ener­gy and frozen wind tur­bine blades for his state’s pow­er calami­ty. Of course, prop­er­ly weath­er­ized wind farms were oper­at­ing from Alas­ka to Min­neso­ta to Maine.

Texas gas pipelines and a nuclear pow­er plant were down, and the state’s go-it-alone elec­tri­cal grid was not posi­tioned to secure pow­er from oth­er states.

A sense of being thrown a life­line has major impact.

After the I‑5 Skag­it Riv­er Bridge col­lapsed, our sen­a­tors made late night calls to the Under­sec­re­tary of Trans­porta­tion and found that emer­gency aid was avail­able for just such an occur­rence. Sen­a­tor Maria Cantwell, D‑Washington, drove up to Skag­it Coun­ty car­ry­ing a com­mit­ment of the first mil­lion dollars.

Anoth­er exam­ple: Dar­ring­ton is a tim­ber town usu­al­ly tough on Democ­rats. A yard behind the U.S. For­est Ser­vice ranger sta­tion became a cen­ter for direct­ing res­cue oper­a­tions fol­low­ing the 2014 Oso landslide.

A gang of locals sang prais­es of U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Suzan Del­Bene, D‑Washington, for quick­ly get­ting hands on resources they need­ed. The for­mer tech exec­u­tive doesn’t deliv­er snarky quotes, but deliv­ered help.

Let’s look at a few notable cas­es of mis­han­dled and han­dled respons­es, both here and else­where in the Unit­ed States, over the past few decades.

Chicago, 1979

A fierce 1979 Chica­go bliz­zard froze the Demo­c­ra­t­ic polit­i­cal machine built by the late May­or Richard J. Daley.

When told res­i­dents of his Bridge­port neigh­bor­hood were wait­ing for bus­es that did not come, May­or Michael Bilandic said they should walk. Bus­es rolled through minor­i­ty neigh­bor­hoods with­out stop­ping, bound for the suburbs.

“I was a vic­tim of the snow, not of my oper­a­tions or any­thing per­son­al,” Bilandic said after los­ing a Feb­ru­ary pri­ma­ry to insur­gent Jane Byrne.

Seattle, 2008

The Decem­ber 2008 Arc­tic blast, which par­a­lyzed the city, put May­or Greg Nick­els on a down­hill tra­jec­to­ry. He did not sur­vive the Top Two elec­tion eight months lat­er. Nick­els made the mis­take of giv­ing him­self a “B” grade in mid-cri­sis. The Seat­tle Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion direc­tor decamped to Port­land for Christ­mas in the mid­dle of the mess.

The Atlantic seaboard, 2012

The tidal surges inflict­ed by Hur­ri­cane Hugo on New Jer­sey and New York in Octo­ber, 2012, saw a coor­di­nat­ed bipar­ti­san response from Christie and Pres­i­dent Oba­ma. They were on the scene togeth­er almost instant­ly, chan­nel­ing aid to the worst hit coastal com­mu­ni­ties. Oba­ma would win a sec­ond term weeks lat­er, and Christie a land­slide reelec­tion in 2013.

Christie got his come­up­pance however.

The gov­er­nor shut down Gar­den State beach­es in 2017, muscling leg­is­la­tors dur­ing a state gov­ern­ment shut­down. He was then pho­tographed from the air with his wife Mary Pat enjoy­ing a Sun­day after­noon at Island Beach State Park.

“I have lit­tle sym­pa­thy for Ted Cruz because he made fun of my beach pho­tos,” Christie said last week.

Puerto Rico, 2017

Atti­tude is every­thing. In 2017, Don­ald Trump tossed rolls of paper tow­els to a crowd at a church in Puer­to Rico after the island was dev­as­tat­ed by Hur­ri­cane Maria. The episode became a sym­bol of Trump’s inabil­i­ty to sym­pa­thize with the strick­en, giv­en his mon­u­men­tal self-absorption.

Trump would scoff at a water purifi­ca­tion kit which helped save lives and gave him­self an A+ grade on hur­ri­cane response.

First Lady Mela­nia Trump would wear spike heels set­ting off on a trip to inspect the rav­ages of Hur­ri­cane Hen­ry in Houston.

When dis­as­ter strikes, there is what cler­gy like to call a “min­istry of presence.”

It helped a strick­en val­ley when Pres­i­dent Oba­ma stopped, in route to a sum­mit in Asia, to vis­it with Oso land­slide recov­ery workers.

And for Pres­i­dent Clin­ton to come call­ing when Cougar, Wash­ing­ton was inun­dat­ed. When the Dar­ring­ton High School base­ball team played its first post-Oso game, Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee and wife Tru­di were in the stands.

It’s fun­ny, too, how polit­i­cal oppo­nents show up for pho­to ops. Ultra­con­ser­v­a­tive U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Lin­da Smith, R‑3rd Dis­trict, hov­ered near Clin­ton when he vis­it­ed the South­west Wash­ing­ton flood site. State Sen­a­tor Bar­bara Bai­ley, R‑Oak Har­bor, showed up when Inslee inspect­ed a Whid­bey Island landslide.

Nat­ur­al calami­ties show us that we need government.

In Texas, we have re-learned that crimp­ing on prepa­ra­tion is enor­mous­ly cost­ly down the road, par­tic­u­lar­ly to low­er income res­i­dents and peo­ple of color.

The les­son had bet­ter take hold, since cli­mate dam­age is mak­ing extreme con­di­tions – more pow­er­ful hur­ri­canes, extend­ed wild­fire fire sea­sons, and polar vor­tex events – the “new normal.”

Way back in 1965, I knelt in a Belling­ham High School hall­way as West­ern Wash­ing­ton was shak­en by a fair-sized earth­quake. Unlike Texas after its 2011 deep freeze, we took notice. The tremor prompt­ed wide­spread retro­fit of school build­ings. By the time of the 2001 Nisqually Earth­quake, we had safer school build­ings and a rapid response plan in place. Lives were doubt­less saved.

Will the coun­try wake up to the need for infra­struc­ture mod­ern­iza­tion fol­low­ing the hor­rors in Texas, or will we see right-wing politi­cians escape respon­si­bil­i­ty and go on demo­niz­ing clean renew­able ener­gy? After all, we have just wit­nessed the worst dis­as­ter to hit Texas since Greg Abbott was elect­ed Governor.

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