Is There Such a Thing as an Adequate Response to a Disaster Scenario?

I’ve been going back and forth with this idea ever since we did our group blog posts on specific hurricanes, and to be honest, I still don’t have a solid answer. We’ve seen–like in When the Levees Broke and in our current events–how the U.S. government has not prioritized relief efforts towards the victims of hurricanes in lower-class or “other” areas such as New Orleans or Puerto Rico. In our post here, my group analyzed how the Trump administration failed to respond to the victims of Puerto Rico in a timely and adequate manner. This is probably because Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States and not a state, so there wasn’t a lot of priority in Trump’s opinion.

For the purposes of this blog post, I am mainly analyzing the responses by our past and current presidents in disaster scenarios. This is because they are usually the ones with the direct blame by citizens since they are the figureheads of our country’s government. So upon reflection on Trump’s lack of efforts combined with the lack of aid George Bush’s administration gave to New Orleans post-Katrina–as seen in When the Levees Broke–I began to think about the concept of an “adequate disaster response.”

I’m sure that we can all agree that both of these latter responses were not “adequate.” Upon further thinking, however, what really constitutes as an “adequate” response of a government in a crisis situation? Is there a situation in which government officials can incur little to no criticism from the public? Further, is there a situation where almost, if not everyone affected by the disaster is accounted for and taken care of in a timely manner? It’s impossible to define an “adequate response” because what would one consider “timely?” Who would be defined as “everyone affected by the storm?” This is the reason why this post is so long-winded and why I’ve been putting it off until one of my final posts.

So to dip my feet in, I think it’s appropriate to look at the antithesis of what a supposed “adequate response” looks like. For the purposes of this blog post, I am referring to responses that come after pre-warned and ongoing catastrophes–such as an epidemic or natural disasters. Through a quick look at three U.S. disaster situations, perhaps this question can be explored. I feel like this question deserves an in depth look at many real-life instances, but for the purposes of this blog post, I will analyze three examples briefly in which the United States did not respond in an adequate manner.

Firstly, the U.S. government did not place enough importance on the response to victims in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. As seen specifically in When the Levees Broke, there are many specific examples to prove this as true. An analysis of these responses could be analyzed in more than just a blog post, which I attempted to do in my “violence is the performance of waste” essay, but I will talk here specifically about the presence of Bush’s administration days after the hurricane hit.

According to Levees, immediately post-Katrina, President Bush gave a speech about Iraq and briefly mentioned Katrina, Vice President Dick Cheney was fly fishing, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove was absent, Secretary of Homeland Security Chertoff was at a disease prevention event in Atlanta and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was shopping and playing tennis (Levees). So already, we see that a large portion of the criticism of the government’s response stems from the lack of importance anyone in the administration put on the disaster situation.

This lack of response is also seen in Trump’s response to Maria in Puerto Rico. He took his time formulating a plan for the relief even though there was prior warning. Alongside this, a major problem with the response was also his attitude towards the situation. This is is mainly seen in this infamous paper towel throwing scene and this speech which I absolutely cannot fathom. Trump’s attitude, and by extension his response to this disaster, was controversial because it displayed an ignorant and neglectful stance from the United States government.

For a perspective outside natural disasters, I turn to a somewhat recent example with the AIDS epidemic. I watched How to Survive a Plague for my Intro to Queer Studies class. This film documents the events and actions surrounding the U.S. government’s response to the AIDS epidemic and illustrates another example of the government not placing enough importance on minority individuals in need, specifically homosexual males with AIDS. Similar to the responses of Trump and Bush, HTSAP shows how President George Bush Sr. ignored the urgency to find a cure or solution for AIDS. This lack of motivation caused people, specifically those interviewed in the film, to think about “what if” scenarios.

Specifically, activist Mark Harrington said, “So that breakthrough, you know that we thought was gonna happen in ‘88 or ‘89 if we just worked fast enough, you know it did happen. But not until ‘96, and so you know a lot people died. Maybe if Reagan had started putting money into AIDS a little earlier, they wouldn’t all be dead” (HTSAP). This “what if” scenario is all that we’re left with after these disasters when they’re handled as poorly as they were.

Surely there’s no evidence that if President Bush, Bush Sr. or Trump responded in a more “adequate manner” to these disaster scenarios it would actually benefit the situation; it’s all hypothetical. One would like to think, however, that if Bush didn’t take his time to go to New Orleans post-Katrina, or Trump didn’t say or do controversial things in Puerto Rico, that many lives would be saved and the victims would be less miserable. But there’s no way to know for sure if this would be the case because those actions were simply not taken. This is the difficult concept that I’m trying to address in this post.

Yes, all of three of these responses were intolerable, but what would make them tolerable? Let’s say that a government cared enough about people in need after a disaster scenario; are there actually enough resources and money to help them? Is the U.S. government physically capable of being able to help 100% of the individuals affected by a disaster, especially in situations like an epidemic or natural disaster that don’t necessarily have a definitive beginning or end? I feel like there could never be a scenario where everyone is accounted for and everyone is helped just because it’s just not physically possible in the United States. There are varying privileges of individuals in the country, so one size–or rather one solution–would not “fit all.” Yet, this does not mean that the government cannot attempt to get better in their response to disasters.

Hurricane Sandy in 2012 proves to be a more “adequate” response by the U.S. government. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that Sandy was very different from Katrina. It’s difficult to compare reactions of different presidents as better than the other because each president and government experiences different levels of challenges. It is still important to take note of how much Obama improved in his response.

According to csis.org, President Obama signed emergency declarations for multiple states which allowed “FEMA to transfer resources directly to state, local, and tribal organizations to make preparations in advance of the storm.” “[Obama’s] actions show a marked change from the way authorities dealt with Hurricane Katrina, this time FEMA was proactive rather than reactive. This is due in part to legislation approved by Congress to restructure FEMA following the miscues of Hurricane Katrina, which allowed quicker access to federal resources and increased communication and partnerships between the federal, state and local agencies.”

So what does this tell us? It tells us that the perceived quality of the response may lie in the actual response of the figurehead of the country. Additionally, the poor responses on the part of people like Bush allowed Obama to do something differently and positively. But again, it’s hard to compare these two situations, specifically because the levees broke in New Orleans which caused much more damage than just Katrina itself.

Regardless, I talked a lot here, but I’m still unsure if there is a way in which the U.S. government, or let alone any government, can respond “adequately” to a disaster situation. I do have somewhat of an answer, however. Seeing how the attitude of the presidents was the most unappealing and representative part of the responses to the AIDS epidemic and hurricanes, perhaps an appropriate attitude is the key into how a response can be perceived as “adequate.” But as I mentioned in the beginning of the post, there are many factors that go into a perceived “adequate” response, and those factors have so many different factors as well. Though this is true, it does not mean that a response cannot be overall a positive one. The attitude taken by the president about the disaster is vital; it sets a precedent for those in his administration, and for future presidents to come.

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