Government preparedness in the face of disaster

I’m delighted that the Health Care bill has passed. But everybody else is talking about it. So I’m going to talk about something else.

Our son, Eli, an engineer who has worked on the design of large buildings from Mexico to Moscow, explained some things to me about the recent quakes in Haiti and Chile.

First, the Richter scale measures the total energy of quakes, not their power at a specific point. The Port au Prince quake was very localized but consistent with very violent local shaking. The Chilean quake was enormous, spread over a very large area, which made it score very high on the Richter scale, but the violence of the shaking at any one point may have been no greater than what people felt in Port au Prince.

Second, he explained to me that subduction quakes, which are typical of the Pacific rim of the Americas, tend to cause a good deal of up and down shock waves. But earthquakes that are caused by the sliding of tectonic plates from side to side, more typical of the eastern side of the Americas, tend to cause a great deal of side to side shaking. Those two have very different effects on the buildings. Buildings that are built to support great vertical stresses may not be able to sustain much side to side stress. And local terrain also makes a large difference in the destructiveness of different types of quakes.

But, based on the reports we’ve seen, the biggest difference was that Chile, and specifically the Chilean government, was prepared. They had earthquake codes that required that buildings be built to withstand large quakes. That’s an engineering problem and engineers can do a lot to mitigate what would otherwise be large disasters. Chile, through its government, decided that mitigation of such large natural disasters was well worth the effort, and it paid off in the recent quake, among many others. In addition, the government was prepared to move into damaged areas, with food, medical and other supplies and heavy equipment.

In Haiti there was no governmental preparedness to speak of, no significant building regulation, no appropriate plans for how to react to quakes, and only a single, damaged, airport through which to get supplies.

The Tea Party and other folk who have been yelling that government is the problem and that government should do less and less, if anything, have been missing the big issues – the difference between what we need government to do, how it should do it and whether government gets our support to do it well.

So, here, the damage to New Orleans was a government failure to do its job much more than it was the consequence of a natural disaster. We failed to plan, to regulate, to enforce and to carry out measures to mitigate disasters. We paid for the absence of government preparedness, not for intrusive over-regulation of private construction.

Conservatives argue that economics solves everything without government. But natural disasters have been with us for millenia and people still settle and set up businesses in the path of hurricanes on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, major flood plains and tornado alley. So much for economic theory – it simply does not reflect the facts.

We need good government, effective government, not government so starved of resources and so undermined by people who are trying to dismantle it that it cannot protect us and provide an environment conducive to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

And yes, that also applies to health care.

This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 23, 2010.

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