The Southern California fires have stunned many with their scope
and ferocity. The federal response to them stands in stark contrast
to the plight of New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina.
After the debacle of Hurricane Katrina, the Bush Administration seems to have learned some lessons. The administration has quickly agreed to all the requests so far from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, though he has a new one: Designate the fire-scarred counties of Southern California a disaster area, allowing direct federal aid to flow to fire victims.
The head of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) is on the ground in San Diego. US Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, who couldn’t be nominated to succeed Alberto Gonzales as US attorney general after his slow response to the near destruction of New Orleans, undertook an aerial survey via Blackhawk helicopter of the fires in the San Diego area with Schwarzenegger and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez yesterday afternoon. And President Bush himself is set to arrive in California on Thursday.
It’s a far cry from Hurricane Katrina, when it took days for FEMA and other authorities to get supplies to survivors huddled in the Superdome, the glittery site of Super Bowls past. Even today, much of New Orleans is nothing short of a wreck.
California, of course, is different. Malibu is home to movie stars. San Diego is one of the nation’s leading Navy towns. The Golden State carries serious national clout. And in Schwarzenegger, the state has a global icon as governor who can rustle up media attention by stepping outside his front door and clearing his throat. Only a crazy administration would ignore all that.
The former action movie superstar has been a whirlwind of activity in this crisis. Says Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez: “This governor has been on this. All over, from Day One.”
As well he might, since this is shaping up as the biggest California disaster since the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, not to mention the biggest crisis of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s governorship.
Schwarzenegger, in San Diego starting out in the morning, appeared briefly via satellite at yesterday’s annual California Women’s Conference in Long Beach. He had been slated for a dual appearance with his friend, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to discuss climate change and leadership. But Schwarzenegger is busy with the massive Southern California fires, and in the end, appeared for only a few minutes discussing the mega-crisis.
It is, said the former action movie superstar, “the perfect storm fire,” citing the confluence of drought conditions, unusual temperatures, and unusually high winds driving a series of fires around the region.
The extreme heat and wind conditions, which are thwarting firefighting efforts, are expected to continue through tonight.
After Schwarzenegger, wearing a jacket standing in front of a fire truck with firefighters preparing to go into action, signed off, the moderator of the would-have-been discussion between the two leaders, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, noted that at the start of his career as a foreign correspondent he began every day “watching the BBC World Service, I suspect I’ll end it beginning every day watching the weather channel.” Blair, who was clearly a favorite of the 14,000 people attending the conference, noted the connection, making the point that Britain has cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% so far while growing the economy by 25%.
Schwarzenegger spent much of Monday night at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, home of the San Diego Chargers (now off practicing in Arizona, far away from the unhealthy air), a key quartering area for fire evacuees. At Schwarzenegger’s request, President Bush declared a state of emergency in California. This freed up aid from the Federal Emergency Management Administration and the Department of Defense. Schwarzenegger on Monday secured six special firefighting planes from the Pentagon through a direct appeal to Defense Secretary Bob Gates. He also called up 1500 members of the California National Guard.
Schwarzenegger is directing Cal Fire (Dept. of Forestry and Fire Protection), Office of Emergency Services (OES), and National Guard resources in the effort. In addition to the 1500 National Guard personnel, there are some 1800 firefighting personnel from Cal Fire and OES. He’s also directed the state Dept. of Corrections to deploy inmate firefighters and supervisory staff. More than 2300 state prisoners and nearly 200 custody staff have joined the firefighting ranks. Over a thousand emergency vehicles and more than a dozen state aircraft are also engaged, along with health and social service assistance personnel.
It’s an impressive performance. Whether it all is enough, or whether the state might have been better prepared for the firestorm of a century, is something we’ll know later.
Also outstanding are deeper questions that extend well beyond what looks like mostly good crisis management by Schwarzenegger and various other state and local officials.
For this is hardly the first time that major fires have swept the Southland. It’s merely the worst. Why do these fires keep recurring? What is it about patterns of development, about failure to control the fuel stock for conflagration? Have some of these localities failed to invest in an adequate firefighting resource, making them too dependent on the state to bail them out? These are perennial issues. They are exacerbated now by additional issues. What about planning ahead for a still more challenging era of altered climate and diminished water resources?
There needs to be a serious study of these questions, and probably more, after this present crisis has abated.
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