During disasters, we’re on our own

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Hurricane Harvey will go down in history as one of the worst hurricanes to hit the Gulf Coast. The Category 4 barnstormer dumped feet, not inches, of rain on the Texas coastline, destroyed property, killed, maimed and generally wreaked havoc wherever it went.

While it was a rare storm in that it lingered for so long in one place, it wasn’t unprecedented for the damage it wrought. Harvey reminded the nation of Katrina, the devastating Cat. 5 hurricane that struck New Orleans in 2005. It’s hard to believe it’s been 12 years since that brutal storm powered its way into America.

Did you notice the weather maps when Harvey made landfall Saturday? Texas is so massive that the storm hardly made it halfway up the state. As I sat watching the live footage it was surreal, as it was during Katrina, to observe as a tiny bit of our country was devastated while most of it, especially Maine which enjoyed a beautifully sunny and cool weekend, sat unscathed and unfazed. America is a truly resilient country based on size alone. Our country is so large that it can withstand hurricane forces that would overwhelm a smaller country.

Another takeaway from Harvey is how long it’s taken for Mother Nature to hurl us another big storm. After Katrina, the global warming doom and gloomers said we’d be getting more and more similar storms as temperatures warmed the waters that feed these kinds of storms. Well, for 12 years now these climate prognosticators have looked silly. Every now and then, though, even a broken clock tells the correct time and Harvey will likely allow the climate change melodramatists to beat their chests again.

I’m not worried about the effects of climate change (since the puny rate of warming is hardly earth-shattering and has happened during many cycles before), but I am worried about the real impacts of natural disasters, particularly on those who think the government will save them. Widespread suffering post-Katrina taught us all that we can’t always rely on government officials. The Federal Emergency Management Agency did a horrific job both during and after Katrina and who knows how they’ll handle Harvey. Time will tell.

But Mother Nature can be a beast, and even the best preparedness regime can’t guarantee our safety. The role of the government is to warn us of approaching storms and then clean up when it’s over. Surviving during the storm is each individual’s job. I know that’s a foreign concept to many who believe their benevolent government will protect them at all times. Each natural disaster, however, wakes us from that self-delusion, and Harvey will likely make rugged individualists out of many nanny-statists.

I was impressed by the plain-spoken Joe McComb, the mayor of Corpus Christi, who advised folks to “get out of Dodge” but didn’t force people to evacuate. He simply stated the facts concerning potential dangers in the days beforehand and recommended that each person do as he or she saw fit to care for themselves, their families and their property. That’s an admirable departure from many in our governing class who impose police-state directives on the populace any chance they get.

Forced evacuations may sound like prudent policy, but for the most part the important decision to evacuate should be the individual’s call. Many stay not out of stubborn anti-government feelings or a desire to challenge Mother Nature and God himself – as Lieutenant Dan did in “Forrest Gump” – but to simply care for their homes during and post-storm and to protect from vandals and looters. Mandatory evacuations, similar to total gun bans, open the door for criminals to fill the vacuum.

Each storm, each terrorist attack, each crime reminds us that we’re on our own in times of trouble. The police, firefighters, EMTs, electrical line workers and other emergency response crews show up only after something bad has happened. And that may take hours, days or weeks or never at all. The government cleans up afterward, which is appreciated and admirable, but at the time disaster strikes we have to rely on our own preparedness. Harvey is a reminder of this fact.

Closer to home, it’s been forever since Maine has seen a hurricane (disappointing those climate-change snake oil salesmen, no doubt) but another winter is approaching and the fall is an opportune time to improve our own property preparedness. Sometimes nothing can prevent disaster, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be ready. As the saying goes, you either live with the pain of discipline or the pain of regret, and this winter when a blizzard comes storming through I hope to have no regrets about my storm preparation efforts.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.

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