Reaping the Whirlwind

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

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The popular answer to that seems to be the Pentagon. "The military–with its speed and discipline–is uniquely able to augment disaster response efforts," argues Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), one of the most enthusiastic boosters of a Salvation Army that really has tanks.

There are certainly aspects of disaster relief–notably the need to clear terrain and establish quick logistical lines–for which the U.S. military is admirably suited. But its capabilities on the ground come at a hideous expense. Military bureaucracy, if anything, is even more costly and complex than its civilian counterpart. The Pentagon's 1992 budget was $313 billion, which consumed nearly 60 percent of discretionary federal spending. I, for one, was hoping to see a good portion of that turned back to taxpayers now that the Cold War is over.

But if the U.S. military is converted into a giant 911 rescue squad, not only will the Pentagon's budget fail to shrink, it may well grow. Imagine the endless intricacies involved in planning for the collapse of Boulder Dam, the meltdown of the Turkey Point nuclear reactor, an earthquake leveling Los Angeles, a typhoon striking Honolulu, a tidal wave hitting Houston. And it won't end there. Once you have a bureaucracy whose entire job is to envision catastrophes, its Cassandras won't stop at the mundane. What if a giant meteor squashed Phoenix? What if a gas leak permeated the New York sewer system and then exploded and the entire city caught fire? What if bubonic plague spread through the bats at Carlsbad Caverns, and then one night a freak wind carried them into El Paso? Of course, once all of these calamities are imagined, the disaster planners must be sure that they have the capacity to respond to each and every one.

This is the reason disaster planning is left to local authorities, who can best envision the kinds of misfortune that are likely to visit their communities and can best prepare for the likely results. To make one agency responsible for every conceivable cataclysm that might happen anywhere in America is to invite prodigious expense, followed closely by breathtaking sloth and then total paralysis.

To get an idea of the way a federal disaster nanny would throw around money, take a look at the way the demands for federal funds pyramided in the weeks after Andrew. First Bush pledged that the federal government would pay 100 percent of the emergency cleanup costs in South Florida instead of the customary 75 percent. Then, as squawks arose from Louisiana (hit by the dying throes of Hurricane Andrew a few days after it came through Miami) and Hawaii (struck a couple of weeks later by Hurricane Iniki), the president promised to pay 100 percent of their costs, too–even though the destruction in Louisiana and Hawaii was nowhere near that in Florida. The sound of dollar bills fluttering in the wind awakened South Carolina Sen. Fritz Hollings (D), who demanded that Bush retroactively agree to pay 100 percent of the tab for 1989's Hurricane Hugo. No sooner said than done.

By the time Bush and Congress had worn themselves out from stuffing extra goodies into the hurricane aid package, it was $8 billion for Florida alone. The only part that met any resistance was Bush's proposal to rebuild Homestead Air Force Base, which was nearly closed last year as part of a general military cutback and was expected to be on the next list of bases to shut down. Opposition to the reconstruction of Homestead, however, represented not a heroic burst of political courage but rather an act of shared venality: Several congressmen suddenly sensed the opportunity to save hitherto-doomed bases in their own districts. Closing Homestead meant one less base would have to bite the dust elsewhere.

Virtually every other boondoggle that was suggested was accepted. Special hurricane counseling for the deaf? Sure. Emergency grants to hire performance artists to dress up like Santa Claus? Why not? After all, as one aide to the House Appropriations Committee noted in a widely reprinted quote, "Simply put, our job is to start shoveling bucks south." Some politicians were positively unhinged by an opportunity to spend money for a cause that was utterly beyond criticism. My favorite was Louisiana Sen. Bennett Johnston (D), who breezily dismissed questions about who would pick up the tab. "It will be paid for out of the deficit," Johnston explained. "The deficit is big enough to encompass this too." All I can say to that is that we here in Miami thank God for prescient public servants like Johnston who were prudent enough to squirrel away a nice large deficit for use on a rainy day.

With so much federal cash flooding into South Florida, naturally everyone felt entitled to their fair share. There was a predictable rash of con men posing as homeless people or faking hurricane damage. (Though no Floridian was so imaginative as the South Carolina woman who in 1989 applied for a FEMA grant on the ground that Hurricane Hugo made her pregnant.)

Private citizens who exhibited excess enthusiasm in pursuit of a few hundred dollars in relief funds were jailed. Regrettably, no such remedy was available for local officials who observed the proper bureaucratic niceties in committing their far more egregious acts of thievery. The city of Oakland Park, located a good 40 miles north of where the hurricane came ashore, suffered nothing more than a

few broken tree limbs. Yet the city billed FEMA for nearly $160,000 in overtime wages–much of it to salaried officials like the city manager and the police chief who had never before qualified for overtime.

Then there are the city fathers of Coral Gables, where I live. Upon learning that FEMA pays for storm-related landscaping damage, Coral Gables promptly submitted a bill for 7,000 new trees. The surrounding city of Miami, with 633 miles of streets, most of them landscaped, may actually turn a profit on the hurricane.

The city officials caught red-handed in these scams haven't displayed the faintest sign of embarrassment or offered even the vague semblance of an apology. The conventional wisdom among politicians is that local folks applaud all attempts to fleece the federal government; getting caught just shows that you were doing your job, trying to bring home the bacon.

Perhaps that's so most of the time. But I suspect there's something about a disaster that alters perceptions, at least temporarily. There is an elusive but palpable sense in Miami that our leaders, no matter how much money they brought showering into town, failed us. Public opinion polls taken in the hurricane zone show that storm victims had a higher opinion of everyone else–the military, the Red Cross, their insurance adjusters, even the benighted FEMA–than they did of state government. Fiery denunciations of the federal relief effort no longer get much ink. Kate Hale, whose convenient televised breakdown induced The Miami Herald to label her a hero, has quietly lowered her profile locally to the point of invisibility. (Perhaps this is because Hale has taken her act on the road. She turned up a few weeks ago on a nationally televised talk show, where she beamed as the hostess greeted her as Miami's own Mother Teresa. Better that Hale had remained in Miami to hunt under the desks for that recovery plan.)

Some of the reasons for the popular discontent are probably unfair. There are undoubtedly some citizens who blame local officials for the hurricane itself, or at least for the lingering pain it left behind. A discomfiting number of Americans seem to feel that they ought to have constitutional immunity from the forces of nature–that for every injury there is a guilty party who must be punished. One unfortunate consequence of the public tantrum of local officials in the wake of the hurricane was that it encouraged this belief that Andrew was somebody's fault.

But there are other, more compelling reasons for Miamians to feel anger with local authorities. Right at the top of the list is that they demeaned us in front of the world. They painted us as people who, confronted by adversity, were unwilling or unable to help ourselves. They made us sound, by turns, stupid and callous and pathetic.

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