We're in what seems to be an annual ritual - watching tornadoes, hail, and winds wreak havoc across the plains. The odds are pretty good that any one particular spot will go unscathed - but the odds also tell us it's an absolute certainty that someplace will get hammered.
The pictures I'm watching on CBS news from Oklahoma tonight show a broad swath of destruction, blocks wide, that stretches way too far into the distance. It's still too soon to know what the casualty numbers are going to be, just that there will be too many.
There's a perverse doctrine called disaster capitalism, which essentially is the practice of using disasters as an excuse to push through changes that line somebody's pockets - the rich and powerful. They're the ones best equipped to recover from a disaster, the ones best connected to get the aid and tax breaks, and rebuilding skewed to their advantage.
We're reaping the whirlwind from the unfettered greed of the fossil fuel industry and the cannibal kings of conservative politics. If ever we needed working government for the greater good, now is the time. In an age of accelerating climate change, it's time to start thinking about disaster socialism.
More below the Orange Omnilepticon.
Profiting from Disaster
Steve Fraser at Mother Jones had an article back in April that seems prescient. A History of Disaster Capitalism details just how the recovery process had been perverted by the time of 911 and Katrina.
Gotham and Greenberg prove that, post-9/11 and post-Katrina, reconstruction and rehabilitation was also skewed heavily in favor of the business community and the wealthier. In both cities, big business controlled the redevelopment process—and so where the money landed and where it didn't.emphasis added
Tax breaks and private sector subsidies became channels for federal aid. 'Public benefit' standards, which once accompanied federal grants and tax exemptions to insure that projects served some public purpose, especially to 'benefit persons of low and moderate income,' were eliminated, leaving poorer people out in the cold, while exacerbating existing inequalities. Governments scurried around inventing ways to auction off reconstruction projects to private interests by issuing tax exempt 'Private Activity Bonds.' These were soon gloriously renamed 'Liberty Bonds,' though the unasked question was: Whose liberty?
The lion's share of grants and exemptions went, of course, to the biggest corporations. In New York, more than 40% of all bonds, or $2.4 billion, went to a single developer, Larry Silverstein. Second to Silverstein was—don't be shocked—Goldman Sachs. Yet these institutions and their inhabitants represented at best a mere 15% of those affected, most of whom were low-wage workers who, in some cases, ended up getting evicted from their homes thanks to those business-oriented tax breaks. Federal aid, hypothetically tied to building affordable housing and the creation of living-wage jobs ended up as just that: hypothetical.
Fraser's look back in history at previous disasters shows this has been more the rule than the exception. The rich, the powerful usually end up on top of the wreckage looking pretty good, from San Francisco's earthquake, to the Johnstown Flood.
Climate change seems to be manifesting not just as warmer temperatures, but also as weather events that go to extremes. Weather-related disasters can be expected to become more common and more devastating. The anti-government fanaticism, pro-business idolatry infecting politics these days will inevitably try to cash in - even as it makes it near impossible to enact public policies to make things better - not worse. The Galtian tendency to tell the disadvantaged and distressed "You're on your own" while the wealthy get TLC is not going to help us climb out of the rubble when disaster strikes. We can do better - and must.
We're All In This Together versus You're On Your Own
Right now, there are a lot of people with shattered lives, who've lost everything, up to and including loved ones. There is a certain amount of schadenfreude in seeing part of the country that has been on an anti-government, climate change denial kick waiting for rescue and relief to reach them, wondering what FEMA can do for them, watching as the weather turns their lives upside down. Schadenfreude is not a luxury we can afford, however. Weather can and does happen everywhere.
Now is the time to demonstrate that government CAN be there to help. People who complain about government right now are really glad to see fire, police, emergency workers and the national guard coming to their aid. They need to see government making a positive difference in their lives AND get the message that they've only been hurting themselves when they've crippled government. To put not too fine a point on it, the help they're getting now is not only their tax dollars at work, it's the tax dollars of a lot of people they've never met.
To put not too fine another point on it, this puts the lie to everything conservative ideology has been telling them for years.
There has been a great deal of damage done to the ideals of the public good and the public interest over the years; disaster recovery done right can help change that. Or, it can be just another opportunity for the grifters to cash in and solidify their grip on the heartland. Steve Fraser's summary makes the choice clear:
More Sandys are surely headed our way, more climate-driven disasters of all sorts than we can now fully imagine. And rest assured, they will be no more 'natural' than the Chicago fire, the Johnstown flood, or the San Francisco earthquake. More than fire itself what we need to deal with now is the power of the finance, insurance, and real estate—or FIRE—sector whose leading corporations now effectively run our economy. Without doing that, the 'nature' these interests have helped create will punish us all while providing a ghoulish boondoggle for a few.Models for Recovery
In the days, weeks, months and years ahead, rebuilding will take place. But - rebuilding just the way things were is only asking for more of the same. We can do better - and must. One place that has become something of an ongoing role model and experiment is Greensburg, Kansas.
The town was almost completely destroyed by a massive tornado. There was a real question as to whether or not the town should be rebuilt. The tornado's devastation brought to a head the bigger problem the town had been facing for years - it was slowly dying. Businesses were closing, children were growing up and moving away to find jobs. Individual choices led to no other course. It was only after the disaster that it became clear that Greensburg would live - or die - as a community. The town came together around the idea of remaking itself as a green community - building sustainably, using energy and resources efficiently, and rebuilding its economy at the same time for the future.
They've become an example and a resource; the website shows how they're inspiring other communities that have been hit by disaster. Can the lessons of Greensburg be replicated elsewhere? We now have a lot of opportunities to find out. And it looks like we'll have more whether we want to or not. The key point is to come together as a community, identify the core problems, and move forward together. The answers may look different in other places, but the principles are the same. It's not about trusting to 'market forces' to magically produce the ideal answer (ideal for whom?) - it's about planning and execution, recognizing that the public interest can take you places following the private interest never will.
Thinking About The Future
Some things would seem to be desirable. Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas - all the places where tornadoes are likely should be considering all new construction (residential to commercial) should incorporate features to protect people from tornadoes, even if it's just one room that's reinforced. Retrofitting should be encouraged. Things like utilities (gas, water, electricity) that automatically disconnect and close down in the event of severe damage, or that can be shut off remotely. There are plenty of ideas out there. How do they get implemented if you have to depend on someone making a profit before anything happens?
Putting power and phone lines underground would reduce a lot of vulnerability. Encouraging people to install solar panels would mean people with intact buildings after a tornado would have access to some power at least, even if the grid went down. Just encouraging people to keep disaster supplies on hand (water, canned food, something like a crank radio, first aid supplies, etc.) Civic investment in disaster relief would also be a good idea - stockpiled supplies, personnel, training, planning, preparation.
The kind of thing governments do when they're not being starved for resources and demagogued 24/7.
The private sector has shown time and time again that it fails when put to the test, that the long term is sacrificed for immediate gain, that greed kills. Community, government, regulation are tools that can provide a framework to harness the private sector for the public good, provide for the future, plan for the worst, and pick up the pieces when it all falls apart. Capitalism is about making profits; government is about solving problems. And boy have we got some problems ahead.
We're going to need all the tools we can get.
Best wishes for everyone in the storm's path tonight. We're all in this together.
UPDATE: At the NY Times Dot.Earth blog, Andrew C. Revkin has some suggestions and observations about A Survival Plan for America’s Tornado Danger Zone. Revkin lists some of the things that could and should be done (but haven't been), and notes that urban sprawl and construction codes have to be factored into what happens when a tornado hits.
Charles P. Pierce at Esquire has a couple of posts up about Oklahoma. Storm Clouds drags into the light the evidence that Senator Tom Coburn is pretty much a monster.
This is a guy who, one day after a devastating natural disaster killed his own constitutents, said he will not vote to allevate their suffering unless he can inflict some pain on someone somewhere else in the country. And his spokesman defends this as a matter of principle, and uses the worst act of domestic terrorism in the history of the United States as a salutary example. (And the link demonstrates that Coburn's aversion to tossing money down various ratholes is not universal.) Does Senator Coburn really believe you can budget for the unthinkable? That tornadoes are zero-sum events? That you can horse-trade on human suffering as though it were a line-item on a transportation rider? I no longer am willing to try to understand how people like this think. They are monsters and they operate on their own monstrous imperatives.Not that Inhofe is a prize, either.
Pierce lauds Senator Sheldon Whitehouse for saying what needs to be said:
"So, you may have a question for me," Whitehouse said. "Why do you care? Why do you, Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, care if we Republicans run off the climate cliff like a bunch of proverbial lemmings and disgrace ourselves? I'll tell you why. We're stuck in this together. We are stuck in this together. When cyclones tear up Oklahoma and hurricanes swamp Alabama and wildfires scorch Texas, you come to us, the rest of the country, for billions of dollars to recover. And the damage that your polluters and deniers are doing doesn't just hit Oklahoma and Alabama and Texas. It hits Rhode Island with floods and storms. It hits Oregon with acidified seas, it hits Montana with dying forests. So, like it or not, we're in this together."