When they closed the wedding chapels, brothels, and even the 24-hour casinos in Nevada early this month, I knew that disaster had truly struck. "It's a strange feeling to see the casinos dark," said a Harrah's spokeswoman. Sort of like when Winston Churchill noticed the lights going out all over Europe.
Until then, I had been skeptical about media reports of natural disasters. Earlier that week, Washington's governor had declared an emergency in several parts of his state after it had been hit by a set of snowstorms (this was before warm rain turned the snow into floodwater). A Slate colleague in Redmond, a Seattle suburb and the home of Microsoft, allowed that the roads were treacherous and that a lot of people were without electricity. But somehow, it didn't feel like an "emergency" to a man who had grown up in the Midwest, where they know from blizzards. "Have we gotten soft?" he wondered.
W ell, have we? Having lowered our standards on what constitutes commonly acceptable behavior--"," as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., famously put it--have we also reduced the threshold for commonly accepted calamity? Have we "defined disaster down"? Only in this case--unlike in Moynihan's--the redefinition has served to increase, rather than decrease, the required level of government intervention, shifting to the national treasury responsibility for hardships that individuals and localities once stoically assumed.
Only an incorrigible cynic would suspect the victims of quakes, tornadoes, and wildfires of smiling at the thought of the fat government relief check that would enable them to pack up for sunnier climes, or at least to replace that crummy old carpeting in the living room. And yet, the data do suggest that something more than outrageous fortune is at work.
Spending on disasters by the Federal Emergency Management Agency burgeoned to $13 billion over the last five years from $3.3 billion over the previous five. Billions more were spent collectively by some 28 other federal agencies such as the Small Business Administration and the departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture, and the Interior. Before 1993, no snowstorm or blizzard had been declared a "major disaster or emergency" by the president (though federal help had been offered in a dozen or so other "winter events" in which additional damage, such as the downing of utility lines, had occurred). Since 1993, nearly four dozen severe winter storms have been so designated, 17 in 1996 alone. Last year, in fact, was a banner year for calamity: FEMA found itself responding to 75 major disasters and eight emergencies so designated by the White House. The previous record, of 45 disasters and two emergencies, was set in 1992.
Of course, both 1992 and 1996 were election years. An unscientific mind, noting the tendency of relief aid to gravitate toward electorally rich states, might even conclude that the gods of mayhem conspire with incumbents to provide calamitous occasions for the demonstration of political compassion. After all, California, with 54 electoral votes, received 55 percent of federal disaster aid from 1989 to 1994, and Florida, with 20 votes, garnered 20 percent.
John Solomon, who provides these last data in an article in the October 1996 WashingtonMonthly, offers a less credulous explanation: Disaster relief is "a unique example of political pork that everyone accepts as kosher."
Yes, it's pork, but we are a wealthy country. Why shouldn't we all pitch in and help each other out when times are tough? True, Clinton's appetite for greenbacked compassion is keen. (In September 1996, when Hurricane Fran upended Durham, N.C., the local Herald-Sun agreed to distribute a FEMA advice booklet, only to discover--according to the paper's editor--that the booklet was held up for five crucial days so that it could be reworked to feature pictures of, and messages from, the president and Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt.) Still, it's a bipartisan taste, and when both parties dig in, the banquet never ends.
More than two years after the 1994 Northridge, Calif., earthquake, for example, HUD found itself still paying generous rent subsidies to more than half of the 13,000 displaced lower-income residents who had been granted "temporary" aid after the disaster. Many, according to a February 1995 story in the LosAngelesTimes, had been moved to housing far superior to their disaster-damaged homes. Last May, the Republican-controlled Congress voted to make the subsidies permanent.
Nor does it seem fair to blame the bureaucrats. FEMA got nothing but brickbats for its slow and stumbling performance in the aftermath of 1992's Hurricane Andrew. When, under Clinton appointee James Lee Witt, the agency finally earned rave notices for its response to the Great Flood of 1993, only the dullest functionary could have missed the lesson: When you do battle with disaster, no medals are awarded for being stingy.