One factor that could make disasters like Hurricane Katrina much worse in the near future is government budgets. Recent news articles indicate that state and local governments throughout the United Sates are facing serious budget shortfalls that could make future catastrophes much worse.
The city of Camden, New Jersey, recently laid off nearly half of its police officers and firefighters. That means the number of professionals capable of responding to a disaster in Camden has effectively been cut in half. Police and firefighters from neighboring jurisdictions could respond but it could take them time to get there.
If such layoffs become widespread in the US, it could make responding to disasters much harder. If a catastrophe were area wide local governments would have no extra equipment or first responders to send to the aid of neighbors.
The lack of police could make looting and civil disorders worse after disasters. Since it usually takes about 24 hours for the military or National Guard to reach the scene of a disaster this could leave citizens at the mercy of criminals. Armed gangs might seize upon a catastrophe and start looting richer neighborhoods of cities as they did during the 1992 Los Angeles Riot.
Even if first responders are available budget cuts could limit their effectiveness. The city government in Denver, Colorado, hasn’t purchased new fire trucks in nearly 30 years. This means that emergency equipment could break down and be unavailable in a catastrophe.
Adding to problems could be the neglect of infrastructure. Part of the reason, Katrina was so bad was because the city refused to maintain the levees that protected neighborhoods from floods were not maintained. The levee maintenance money was diverted to politicians’ pet projects including a pier for a riverboat casino. Similar situations are occurring in many areas of the country where roads, sewers, water systems and other infrastructure haven’t been maintained.
If the potential budget shortfalls weren’t bad enough many city governments in the US have wasted what money they have on politicians’ pet projects. So called civic leaders in Denver couldn’t find the funds for new fire trucks but they were able to put up several costly new government buildings.
There is no way to prevent catastrophes like Katrina but there are ways to be properly prepared for them. One of the best ways to be prepared is to demand responsibility on the part of elected leaders. In particular citizens must demand that governments properly police, firefighters, ambulance services and other emergency responders. They must make sure these people are properly paid, trained and equipped.
Citizens must also demand that public funds be spent on infrastructure that protects us. Not monuments that make politicians feel good about themselves. If this isn’t done we will see more catastrophes like Katrina.