Treat All Disasters As If They Were Trivialities
Of course, there’s lots of other things you (and your community!) should do to prepare for a disaster, but according to this story in Time magazine, not enough Americans are doing them:
the real challenge in the U.S. today is not predicting catastrophes. That we can do. The challenge that apparently lies beyond our grasp is to prepare for them. Dennis Mileti ran the Natural Hazards Center for 10 years, and is the country's leading expert on how to warn people so that they will pay attention. Today he is semiretired, but he comes back to the workshop each year to preach his gospel. This July, standing before the crowd in a Hawaiian shirt, Mileti was direct: "How many citizens must die? How many people do you need to see pounding through their roofs?" Like most people there, Mileti was heartbroken by Katrina, and he knows he'll be heartbroken again. "We know exactly--exactly--where the major disasters will occur," he told me later. "But individuals underperceive risk."It’s that last sentence which makes me reluctant to present this article to a libertarian audience. Because generally speaking, it isn’t talking about the types of disasters that can be solved by rugged individual self-reliance. I’m prepared for an event that could make my neighborhood lose power for a week or two — I’ve got bottled water, porno flashlights, food and other supplies. But those aren’t the preparations the article is talking about.
Historically, humans get serious about avoiding disasters only after one has just smacked them across the face. Well, then, by that logic, 2006 should have been a breakthrough year for rational behavior. With the memory of 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, still fresh in their minds, Americans watched Katrina, the most expensive disaster in U.S. history, on live TV. Anyone who didn't know it before should have learned that bad things can happen. And they are made much worse by our own lack of ambition--our willful blindness to risk as much as our reluctance to work together before everything goes to hell.
Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and the state legislature managed to pass mandatory building codes this year. Most states already have such codes. Florida has had a strict one in place since 2001, and structures built under it tend to be the ones left standing after a 120 m.p.h. wind rips through. We know that for every dollar spent on that kind of basic mitigation, society saves an average of $4, according to a 2005 report by the nonprofit National Institute of Building Sciences. Then there's Mississippi, which, believe it or not, still has no statewide building code. Katrina destroyed 68,729 houses there. But this year a proposed mandatory code, opposed by many builders, real estate lobbyists and homeowners, ended up voluntary.
Here’s the libertarian philosophical conundrum. How much authority should the government have to regulate how you build your home? The boilerplate answer is that you can build any kind of house you want so long as you don’t hurt anybody else. I don’t support “snob zoning” laws requiring homes and lots to be a minimum size to keep the riff-raff out, but I have no problems with building codes which require people living in close quarters to have septic tanks or sewer hook-ups rather than inflict outhouse odors on their neighbors.
And to be honest, I don’t mind laws which say “you can’t build a house with an extremely high probability of being destroyed by the forces of nature within a few years.” I don’t know what my local building codes are, but I’m certain that roofs must be able to support the weight of at least three feet of snow and even though this violates proper libertarian principles I’m too soft-core to care.
Of course, this analogy doesn’t apply to anti-hurricane building codes. Snow in New England is an ordinary winter phenomenon, not a catastrophic event. What’s more, if my roof collapsed in a snowstorm it would only be dangerous to people in my house. But in a hurricane, pieces of your demolished house can go on to become dangerous projectiles damaging the homes of others.
Anyway, building codes alone won’t save everybody. After discussing situations like floods, where even people in windproof homes would need to evacuate, the article says this:
People cherry-pick the lessons of Katrina to avoid taking action. Fifty-four percent of those who say they wouldn't evacuate are worried that the roads would be too crowded, and 67% believe shelters would be dangerous. That's understandable, unfortunately. One of the most damaging legacies of Katrina might be the TV images of looting and the graphic rumors of violence that crystallized our belief that we turn into savages in a disaster--a notion that is demonstrably untrue; after most disasters, including Katrina, the crime rate goes down. Ironically, 66% of those surveyed were also confident that if they stayed at home, they would eventually be rescued--a faith hardly justified by the Katrina experience. Ours is a strange culture of irrational distrust--buoyed by irrational optimism.
Heat waves bring out the same kind of self-delusion. Scott Sheridan, professor of geography at Kent State University, has studied heat-wave behavior--focusing particularly on seniors, who are at special risk in hot weather--in Philadelphia; Phoenix, Ariz.; Toronto; and Dayton, Ohio. He found that less than half of people 65 and older abide by heat-emergency recommendations like drinking lots of water. Reason: they don't consider themselves seniors. "Heat doesn't bother me much, but I worry about my neighbors," said an older respondent.
I can sympathize with people who won’t leave their homes before a storm. (I wouldn’t mind leaving if I knew I could return as soon as the storm ended, but that would never happen — instead, the National Guard would be called out to keep everyone away until the government decided it was safe.) But who the hell is too stubborn to drink extra water in a heat wave?
By the way, I think Amanda Ripley, the author of this piece, has some libertarian leanings of her own. Check this out:
When Americans cannot be trusted to save themselves, the government does it for them--at least that's the story of mandatory car insurance, seat-belt laws and smoking bans. But when it comes to preventing disasters, the rules are different. The message, says Paul Farmer, executive director of the American Planning Association, is consistent: "We will help you build where you shouldn't, we'll rescue you when things go wrong, and then we'll help you rebuild again in the same place." . . . . Nationwide, only 20% of American homes at risk for floods are covered by flood insurance. Private insurers largely refuse to offer it because floods are such a sure thing. In certain flood-prone areas, the Federal Government requires people to buy policies from the government's National Flood Insurance Program to get a mortgage loan. But the program has never worked even remotely as insurance should. It has never priced people out of living in insanely risky areas. Instead, too few places are included in the must-insure category, and premiums are kept artificially low.Keep the government out of the insurance business, and let the free market save people from dying in floods.