Reaping the Whirlwind

Hurricane Andrew was a godsend for Politicians. The last thing they want is a premature recovery.

First Hurricane Andrew was terrifying, rattling my windows with Druidic shrieks, shaking my doors with a lunatic fury. Then it was depressing, leaving behind a once-lovely neighborhood awash in shattered trees and twisted debris. Then it was tedious, trapping me in a blockaded house without electricity or water. And finally it was surreal. We reached that moment a week after the storm, when George Bush peered out of the grainy black-and-white screen of my tiny, battery-operated television and blithely promised to spend $480 million to raise Homestead Air Force Base from the rubble in which Andrew had entombed it, reanimating it like some Cold War zombie to stare vacantly at a Soviet threat that has ceased to exist.

Bush's pledge to rebuild Homestead–just one chunk of pork, albeit a meaty one, in an unprecedented $8-billion aid package–was the most grotesque act of political pandering I saw in the weeks after the hurricane, but it was hardly the first. Within minutes of Andrew's final howl, the screen of my television overflowed with the bovine faces of politicians taking credit and assigning blame, promising and demanding swag. The particulars varied, but there were a few constant themes: Someone else should have predicted the hurricane earlier, prepared for it better, provided more aid for its victims.

Politicization of disasters is nothing new, of course. In a culture in which politics has largely been reduced to an endless parade of pressure groups proclaiming their own victimization and demanding succor, the casualties of natural catastrophes–whose suffering is both authentic and obvious–are the most difficult to refuse. In 1972 Richard Nixon dispatched his housing secretary, George Romney, to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to investigate the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Agnes. At the conclusion of his visit, as Romney held a press conference, a 63-year-old grandmother rose in front of the TV cameras. "1 believe you don't give a damn whether we live or die!" she screamed at the befuddled Romney. Days later, $2 billion in federal largess began cascading into Pennsylvania.

In 1972 Nixon faced re-election, just as Bush did in 1992. But there are other factors that have intensified the politicization of aid for the victims of Hurricane Andrew and hurled it light-years beyond the ordinary dimensions of pork-barreling into a new realm from which we may never emerge. For one thing, Nixon was barely breaking a sweat in his race against the hapless George McGovern. Bush, by contrast, was trailing Bill Clinton in the polls in large part because voters perceived him as a president who cared more about foreign affairs than domestic problems. Then there are the personality differences: Bush can't stand to have anyone angry with him; whatever other criticisms can be made of Richard Nixon, that wasn't one of his problems.

Perhaps Bush's peculiar vulnerabilities wouldn't have mattered so much if Hurricane Andrew had come ashore somewhere else. But Miami is a high-profile city, a powerful media center populated by politicians well schooled in the manipulation of those media. In the days after Andrew, the politicians and the media entered into an extraordinarily symbiotic relationship, using one another to goad Bush into handing over the keys to the cash register. Local officials had virtually an open microphone for unchallenged tirades about the federal government’s failure to deliver. Television anchors openly heckled news clips of the president discussing hurricane damage; one radio station repeatedly broadcast the White House phone number and urged its listeners to "give the president a call." Announced one Miami Herald banner headline, two inches high: WE NEED HELP.

It was a truly inspired bit of theater that finally cornered Bush. On August 27, three days after the hurricane, Kate Hale, the head of Dade County's Emergency Management Office, called a press conference. "I want this live!" she snapped at the waiting television crews as she marched into the briefing room. The TV crews obediently began feeding their signals, and Hale climbed onto a chair and launched a scathing attack on the White House. "Enough is enough!" she shouted. "Quit playing like a bunch of kids!" As the cameras pulled in tight for a close-up, tears conveniently welled in her eyes. "Where in the hell is the cavalry?" she demanded. "For God's sakes, where are they? We're going to have more casualties because we're going to have more people dehydrated. People without water. People without food. Babies without formula....I am not the disaster czar down here. President Bush was down here. I'd like him to follow up on the commitments he made."

Predictably, Hale's performance won rave reviews in the Miami news media. The Miami Herald said it was a "movie plea for aid, desperate but determined" and called Hale "a hero to many." Certainly she was effective: Within an hour, Bush promised to send in the U.S. Army.

But there was much that Hale didn't mention during her tearful soliloquy. First and foremost was the reason that the U.S. Army wasn't on the scene: No one in Florida had asked for it. American presidents, with good reason, do not treat local jurisdictions like conquered territories, subject to military occupation at the whim of the White House. Even in civil disturbances, where the military's primary skill–shooting people–is far more relevant than it is in a natural catastrophe, it's rare to see federal troops.

Not only had Florida officials not asked for troops, they had specifically said they didn't want any. The Florida National Guard's hurricane log shows that on August 25, a Guard officer briefing a U.S. Army counterpart told him: "Florida has not requested any support from other states or federal agencies, nor do we project a need."

Then there was the matter of those people without water, people without food. They existed, no doubt about that. But whether they numbered in the hundreds, or the thousands, or the tens of thousands, no one knew–certainly not Kate Hale. According to reports in several newspapers, her office never bothered to conduct a post-hurricane damage assessment, so Dade County had no idea how many people were without food, water, electricity, or housing.

And if the county had known, it probably wouldn't have made much difference. It seems that, in the five years she's headed it, Hale's $612,000-a-year disaster planning office never got around to any actual disaster planning. According to The Miami Herald, the office had only a single copy of a proposed draft of a recovery plan, stowed away somewhere in a cardboard box.

Now, foreseeing the possibility that the Miami area might be hit by a hurricane does not require Jeanne-Dixon-like perceptual powers. Hurricanes have struck Florida 57 times this century, 32 of them in the state's southeastern tip. In some years it's happened as many as three times. Three of the four strongest hurricanes to come ashore in the United States this century passed through South Florida.

Given our history, it's difficult to see why local authorities shouldn't have been able to plan for the aftermath of a hurricane–and to do so without any guidance from the federal government. In fact, if anything, the feds ought to be coming to us for help; we have more experience with hurricanes than they do.

But the first-strike whining of Florida officials in the hours after Hurricane Andrew destroyed this line of reasoning before it ever got off the launching pad. Newspapers running the gamut from The New York Times to USA Today decried "the inadequacy of federal readiness." Sen. Barbara Mikulski (DMd.) said hurricane victims had been "devastated twice, once by the natural fury of Hurricane Andrew, the second the hand of their own government," as though George Bush and his evil henchmen had been throwing their bodies in front of relief trains bound for Miami.

The common thread running through most of these attacks was that the United States needs a high-powered disaster-planning agency–despite the fact that most of these same critics have nothing but scorn for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the office that currently coordinates Washington's response to catastrophes. If FEMA, with a $750 million-a-year budget, can't get it right, then who can?

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