[Opinion] – Hurricane response has reached a breaking point

The hot Minnesota summer weather may be fading away, but the Atlantic hurricane season is really just beginning. At a time when storms seem to be more closely watched than ever, the federal routine of spending exuberant budgets on tropical systems and their impact has set a dangerous precedent. After a handful of landmark events during the past decade âÄî such as Katrina âÄî government policy on all levels has evolved to calm the public instead of becoming efficient. The taxpayers from all 50 states that foot the billion-dollar invoice after each massive rescue operation deserve a better explanation for inconsistencies in expectations for local and state government. Hurricane Gustav was a wakeup call that, after 2005, New Orleans and its ability to properly respond to an emergency would be tested again. After the gigantic fallout of bad PR (mostly undeserved), the Bush administration stepped in and gave the state of Louisiana and city of New Orleans no room for error. As the commander of the stateâÄôs National Guard, the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans did not act with haste or prudence during Katrina, and an easy scapegoat was readily available. The public was easily convinced Katrina was a federal mistake and not a local one, but regardless of how correct their assumption was, this type of flawed government response could not happen again. ThatâÄôs why, when Gustav seemed imminent, the federal government immediately stepped in and took precautions like never before, evacuating millions from their homes. But with so many homes and neighborhoods lying in such dangerous areas, we should not allow the government to continue to encourage further construction in places like the 9th Ward of New Orleans. Granted, there is an emotional connection to a place that is undeniable, and nobody wants to be forced from his or her home. But when the risk they have placed themselves in becomes a problem for the rest of the country, action must be taken. The state of Washington would never let someone apply for a building permit next to Mount St. Helens, and California would most certainly laugh off any attempt to place a sub-development in a fire-prone forest. The conditions in the Mississippi river basin have changed in the last half-century and demand a new debate. Increased construction along the U.S. southern coastline has made storms more expensive than ever. The cost of Katrina was estimated at over $200 billion âÄî or around $700 for every man, woman and child in the United States. There has been a shift away from governors taking complete control of their states to readily passing on control to Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal agencies. They are sometimes forced to do this in case the emergency turns out to be a bigger problem than predicted, which the public doesnâÄôt always understand is an unavoidable part of natural disasters. One report cited that the number of federal disaster declarations has surged from an average 13 per year in the 1950s to 52 per year so far this decade. It is also important to note that a long-term solution to safeguarding New Orleans and other coastal vulnerabilities includes more than just higher walls and more pumps. Louisiana loses one football field worth of wetlands every hour because of coastal erosion âÄî wetlands that used to provide a buffer to storm surge. Local government must take on the responsibility of improving these secondary areas of protection. Responsibility over disaster prevention must be handed back over to state control. In the summer floods that crippled parts of Iowa, nobody was sitting on their roofs with signs that read âÄúSave Me George Bush,âÄù because most Americans believe that the best solutions resonate from a local level. Nevertheless, there has been a flurry of media and bandwagon pressure for the president to take blame for anything that goes wrong under his watch, and this has forced his administration to take over tasks they should have no business doing. Several experts have concluded that many areas of the gulf coast are still not prepared for âÄúthe big one,âÄù a 100-year storm that paralyzes all functions of everyday life. Hurricanes will continue to impact commerce and government, so it is essential to stop making the same mistake of âÄúevacuate, return, rebuild in the same location and repeat.âÄù We need a federal- and state-directed policy that halts construction growth in areas most vulnerable, and we need to use the money weâÄôre using to put citizens in trailers to instead relocate them to safer areas. It is not logical to perform a $10 billion dollar militarized evacuation every week a storm strikes during the summer and fall. State and local governments must be empowered with the authority and resources to prevent and respond to disasters that can be seen coming. It is not an inalienable right to be saved from your home by helicopter after ignoring evacuation orders. Finally, our goal should be to lower the amount of federal disaster responses annually, instead of the exponential growth weâÄôve seen since 1950. Federal bureaucracy is not suited to deal with neighborhood flooding any more than it is to deal with banks that hand out loans to people that canâÄôt pay them back. WeâÄôll save that issue for next week. Andy Post welcomes comments at [email protected]