Monday, December 17, 2007

The Next Disaster

Thankfully 2007 turned out to be an unexpectedly gentle hurricane season in the United States, which did not receive a direct hit in a season in which there were fewer named storms than predicted. Hallelujah, Insha Alla, Thank God, on behalf of all our friends and loved ones in harm's way down there (I used to live in Miami). But I don't think God messes with long-term trends (especially not ones aggravated by human misconduct). Based on the science of global warming we must prepare for a lot more terrible hurricane seasons like the savage fall of 2005 in which Katrina and Wilma left death and havoc across the Gulf coast and into Florida.

We cannot do much about the storms themselves (other than try to reduce our current carbon footprint), but there is much we need to do to prepare our people and our infrastructure (which as Katrina demonstrated is in terrible shape and not just in New Orleans). Above all else we need to change our governing paradigm from our relentless focus on "stranger danger" set by the war on crime to one capable of mobilizing collective trust and cooperation to reduce carbon and improve the efficiency of local capacities for self-help during severe disasters. I've argued for some time that the mentalities shaped by a generation of governing through crime are totally unhelpful when it comes to preparing for these 21st century disasters.

But this change will not come by itself. As the coverage of Katrina demonstrated, our media and political leaders will emphasize crime and stranger danger at every possible moment. Only last week, as reported by the AP, Texas officials outlined a new procedure to screen evacuees being bussed away from disaster areas for sex crimes.

AUSTIN (AP) — Texans who board evacuation buses during hurricanes or other emergencies must now submit to criminal background checks, the state’s emergency management director said.

The policy is an effort to keep sex offenders and fugitives from boarding evacuation buses with children, the elderly and the disabled, Jack Colley, the chief of the state’s Division of Emergency Management, told The Houston Chronicle, which posted the article on its Web site Saturday.
The fact that they are not going to leave sex offenders (a group that includes many people who were convicted of nothing more serious than having consensual sex with their under-aged girlfriends when they were also very young) behind, but only segregate them, is not very reassuring. The logic of this policy is utterly flawed. Consider that your child is unlikely to be molested on a crowded bus and that they are in more danger from the undetected pedophile within the family than from a stranger with a record of sex offenses. What is significant however is not how stupid the policy is and how readily it panders to our most self-reassuring fears, but how it directs or misdirects our fears in the face of the next disaster.

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