The fire and the flood

Lesson learned? Two disasters reveal two very different responses.

Since a July 2007 Congressional hearing on elevated formaldehyde levels in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers used as substitute housing for Hurricane Katrina victims, 52,425 units are still in use in Mississippi and Louisiana. Unusually high occurrences of headaches, nosebleeds and respiratory illnesses continue to afflict the trailers’ inhabitants, especially children. Two years have passed from the time when the hurricane ruined much of the Gulf Coast, yet many residents there have so far seen no relief.

As the people of Mississippi and Louisiana still wait in trailers or have been forced from their homes completely and relocated permanently, the recent wildfires in California have displaced some 500,000 people.

This past week, comparisons have been made between the two catastrophes, yet it is difficult to relate a fire that covered 780 square miles and destroyed 18,000 homes with a flood that covered 90,000 square miles and destroyed 200,000 homes. What is more, put side by side, the predominately white, economically secure West Coast victims (San Diego County: 66 percent white) do not compare to the predominately black, lower-class Gulf Coast victims (2005 New Orleans: 67 percent black).

After the slow response to Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. government responded almost immediately to the California wildfires. President George W. Bush’s response this time was different – instead of a helicopter flyover, the president walked the grounds of the disaster.

However, it is not the race or the class of the victims that caused this change. Simply, the U.S. government learned its lesson from its failure during the hurricane – the state of the refuges in San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium this past week looked very different than those in New Orleans’ Superdome in 2005.

The wildfire response was adequate and expected. It is the post-disaster relief in the coming months in California that will show the actual differences between the fire and the flood. The U.S. government will not be tested with the West Coast as it was with the Gulf Coast. While the have-nots are still waiting for relief, the haves will move on with more ease. The U.S. government will continue to fail the have-nots.