Who’s responsible for saving you when disaster strikes?

Terry Garlock's picture

For those able to think past the human tragedy in Haiti, there are some reminders of life’s realities. One of those reminders is that when disaster strikes somewhere in the world, our elected representatives in Washington will sell us down the river ... again.

It would be nice to rebuild Haiti and lift it out of its pre-earthquake certifiable cesspool status. But we’re broke. Nevertheless, I knew in a heartbeat after learning the news of the calamity that our president, and every other politician who could find a TV camera, would promptly promise new truckloads of your money and mine to solve the problem.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for doing what the U.S. is now doing, providing humanitarian aid, valiantly trying in diminishing rescue prospects and attempting to help stunned survivors get through the day. But it seems we are rarely smart about setting limits.

Maybe you resent those words, that there should be limits on aid to help disaster victims. The limits I am referring to are limits on how we spend our money. It’s all about priorities.

Should we divert some of the trainloads spent on Iraq and Afghanistan to Haiti? Maybe we should, but we won’t. It is too easy for our leaders to look into the camera and promise mountains of new borrowed money, especially when the mental teenagers in our news media ask each other breathless on-air questions about who will solve this problem and how many more hours must go by before help arrives to make the pain go away?

Priorities. Maybe this would be a good time to reconsider the foreign aid we spread around the world and what we get in return for it, and ask whether we should pour that money into Haiti instead.

We give Egypt $2 billion (note the “b”) a year and they hate us. Egypt votes against us about 80 percent of the time in the United Nations.

We give hundreds of millions to India and they vote against us equally as much; does it make sense to you that a huge nation like India merits money from your pocket? And so on. The list is long.

Maybe we could take money to help Haiti out of the so-called stimulus fund, which is turning out to be a slush fund for the Democrats to pay off their allies, anyway, and ineffective at creating jobs outside of government.

I can’t remember an occasion when our leaders in Washington reshuffled spending priorities when a disaster occurred. They are conditioned to never say no when TV cameras show pictures of suffering. Maybe it’s human nature for our leaders to make promises, since the one making the promise gains stature and power while you and I must ultimately make good on the promises, and there is a long list of American promises that have become international entitlements.

I’ll pretend you asked me what I would do.

Wipe the foreign aid slate clean – nobody gets a dime until we aren’t broke any more, then we’ll reconsider. Bring our troops home and be ready to squash enemies like a bug when our national security is threatened. Be quick and generous to help when disaster strikes on the world’s poor, but only when we take existing money from other programs to provide the aid. If everything is too important to be cut, then we don’t have the money to help other nations.

Priorities force difficult choices. We can’t borrow our grandchildren’s income just because it is inconvenient to prioritize the budget. Oops, we’ve already done that.

There’s another reminder from the Haiti news that too many Americans need. The civilization we enjoy in our daily life is not our birthright, not the natural order of things, and it can break. Since we are born and live our lives under a bubble of protection and plenty, when something goes wrong we expect someone to fix things, and right now!

I know many of you still think of the Hurricane Katrina disaster as President Bush’s fault. I was traveling at the time and when I saw the morning after images of New Orleans on TV news in my hotel room, I remember thinking as the talking heads asked each other why help had not yet arrived, “I wonder how long it will take to blame George Bush?”

That didn’t take long. It was Bush’s fault, even though the destruction covered an enormous area in multiple states.

If you want to see the natural order of things, look past the headlines of the Haiti story to learn that people are doing violence to each other over food and water, never mind a place to sleep and poop, never mind the diminishing prospects of rescuing those buried in rubble; the decimation is just too massive to get under control quickly.

When a huge catastrophe strikes there is an easy answer to the desperate question of who will come quickly to solve your problem – nobody. Huge destruction means help will be slow to arrive because resources are limited.

I am reminded of evacuation plans for U.S. cities in case of disaster. The plan might achieve the goal of moving people out, but where do they go? The first wave will fill up hotels, clean the shelves of food and drink, clog the toilets to overflowing, empty the gas stations of every gallon, buy every burger and taco and Coke from every open store, and soon there will be highways full of stranded hungry and thirsty people asking each other who is on the way to help them and when they will arrive.

Nobody, at least for a painfully long time. That’s real life.

Of course you won’t hear that from talking heads or politicians. They say, “The U.S. is on the way to help,” “We want to assure the Haitian people we are doing everything possible,” and other reassurance that creates unrealistic expectations.

Better that they said, “We are mobilizing as fast as possible to help, but it takes time, we can’t be there with what people need instantly.”

In Haiti my guess is the remaining survivors under the rubble will die miserably with maybe a few miraculous rescues. People will fight and even kill each other when they do what they must to take food and water for themselves and their children to make it through another day, and another, and some of them will die, too, while aid workers struggle mightily to help.

Slowly, ever so slowly, small layers of civilization will be added, like tents for daily shelter, food and water distribution points in further inland locations, equipment to clear roads for emergency vehicles, teams and machinery to rebuild electric generating plants and water facilities and distribution grids. Slowly.

Fuel distribution points might finally reach throughout the city and eventually gas stations come back to life. The supply lines of food will overtake aid distribution, but not for a long time by my guess.

Meanwhile, survivors will look for someone to blame for their misery. Jobs no longer exist. Nobody has money. Why did it take so long for someone to come? Why does it take so long to rebuild the basics of life?

That’s real life outside our bubble.

Sooner or later California will be devastated by earthquake and we’ll have our own version, though not as primitive as Haiti.

There’s an even bigger potential natural disaster in our back yard. Under the pristine beauty of Yellowstone National Park , geologists say, there is a magma chamber, a vent or bubble in the earth’s crust, that historically has erupted every 600,000 years or so. The last one was about 650,000 years ago and we are overdue for a huge eruption.

Some ask why they don’t see a volcano mountain at Yellowstone, and geologists explain the crater is not easily visible because it is about 40 miles across. They say the explosive eruption, when it comes, will be about 2,500 times as large as the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980, itself a huge explosion about 1,600 times the explosive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Whenever Yellowstone blows, Chicago and New York, not to speak of everything in between, might be buried under several feet of ash and the skies could be dark for a very long time.

When disaster strikes and the bubble breaks, who is responsible to protect and care for your family, to do what can be done to keep them alive?

You are.

[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City can be reached via email: tgarlock@mindspring.com.]

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