Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Governments That Learn

For the past few days I’ve found it difficult to care much about national politics. The fires have never come close to where I live and I have not even been affected by smoke or ash. But this is my community and these are my neighbors.

California may be the home of fruits and nuts, but those fruits and nuts don’t buckle under pressure. You set their city on fire and they suck it up. When the government handles a situation badly, as in the Cedar Fire of 2003, the fruits and nuts grab it by the necktie and demand changes.

Everyone knows, of course, about the city that had its signature building bombed in 1993 and learned nothing from the event – placed it’s command center next door, didn’t correct it’s radio problems, etc.

Well, after the Cedar Fire the citizens spoke up about what went wrong, and San Diego local governments did a little bit better than that.

A "reverse 911" system is in place to notify people in danger that it is time to evacuate their home for safety.

For the past three days city and county police and more than a dozen fire departments have been talking to each other on radios that share a common radio frequency. When emergency services have come from afar to help, if their radios do not use that frequency there are spare radios to give to them.

All firemen have been supplied with plenty of spare batteries for their radios, and the command centers are equipped to recharge the batteries and are able to replace radios that are damaged or lost in service.

The helicopters battling the fires have included the U.S. Navy. The fruits and nuts pronounced that the pilots who had been plucking space capsules from the sea were almost certainly qualified to drop water on fires, and they didn’t want their officials turning down any more help. Message heard.

I read one national news item that commented on the difference between the Superdome during the Katrina event and Qualcomm Stadium during this fire, and the item asked if the difference was because the people in San Diego are not Black. The bit about “gourmet meals” at Qualcomm was pure hype, but the question was not by any means ridiculous. I think the answer, however, is that race had nothing to do with it.

For one thing, Katrina was an evacuation and devastation of an entire city, while this fire actually affected only a portion of San Diego. Those who were not affected pitched in to help those who were. In New Orleans there were no people to help those who were affected; everyone was either gone or they were in the gun sight.

More importantly, California has governments that know how to ask its citizens to help and know how to utilize that help when it is offered. That’s what happened at Qualcomm. Almost at once it was being announced that no more volunteers were needed, and by Tuesday afternoon the television stations were telling the public to stop bringing donations, that no more food or supplies were needed. What government provided was organization and coordination.

The Santa Ana winds are dying down, a day earlier than predicted but none too early to suit any of us in San Diego. The fires are still feeding on ultra-dry brush and trees, though, and will remain dangerous for several more days. We cannot yet count the homes that have been lost, but it has been many, many.

And the fruits and nuts will rebuild exactly where the lost homes stood. Because this is home and we will not be driven away.

And this government is our government. Responsible to us.

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