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Lessons from the California Wildfires
by K. Lloyd Billingsley 12/3/07

California is a natural disaster theme park, and major parts of the state have recently been ablaze. The fires forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate, and many returned to find their homes burned to the ground. During this tragedy was a strange but instructive event.

On October 23, at the height of the inferno, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) held a press conference in which FEMA boss Harvey Johnson was asked if he was satisfied with the agency’s response to the wildfires. Johnson responded, “I am very happy with FEMA’s response so far,” as though speaking to a reporter. As it turned out, those asking the questions were not reporters all, but FEMA employees. The whole thing was a fake — another confirmation of FEMA’s institutional ineptitude.

K. Lloyd Billingsley
[Courtesty of Pacific Research Institute]

K. Lloyd Billingsley is Editorial Director for the Pacific Research Institute and has been widely published on topics including on popular culture, defense policy, education reform, and many other current policy issues. [go to Billingsley index]

Recall that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, FEMA responded with a speed somewhere between that of a glacier and continental drift. State politicians were also asleep at the switch. This was in sharp contrast to the private sector. Before Katrina even struck land, Wal-Mart had 45 trucks loaded and ready for delivery.

“They were ready before FEMA was,” one local official told the Washington Post, which noted that the company went on to distribute $20 million in cash, 1,500 truckloads of free merchandise, and food for 100,000 meals, among other benefits. This year in California, according to news reports, corporate donations “are flowing in fast and heavy.”

Wal-Mart stores and the Wal-Mart foundation increased their cash donation to the American Red Cross to $1 million. Red Cross CEO Mark Everson told reporters that Wal-Mart has “consistently been a leader during times of disaster.” Local Wal-Mart stores and Sam’s Clubs deployed trucks with more than $400,000 worth of merchandise and set up collection sites in every one of Wal-Mart’s 208 California stores. Safeway and Vons/Pavillions donated $750,000 for relief, and the Safeway Foundation gave $500,000 in cash. Vons/Pavillions also sent trucks with bottled water, personal items and even pet food to Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, an evacuation center.

It wasn’t just large companies lending a hand. In the San Gabriel Valley, Dickson Podley Realtors solicited donations from their agents, customers and other entities with whom they do business. Wescom Credit Union offered aid to victims of the fires through the WeCare Foundation, a charitable organization run by employees. Mervyn’s department stores donated $25,000 to the American Red Cross and matched employee donations up to $25,000.

Churches and countless individuals also worked long and hard. These individuals, foundations and companies were under no obligation to help disaster victims. On the other hand, this is FEMA’s sole purpose. The agency’s fake press conference is an admission that it is more about polishing its image than performing its appointed task. Therein lies a lesson for state leaders.

The wildfires of 2007 were not fake, and will surely flare up again. That is why legislators should not leave Californians to depend on FEMA, but find ways to encourage and reward private philanthropy and volunteerism. Easing heavy-handed business regulations, taxes and fees would help. A ballpark figure for property tax on a house burned to the ground should be zero. While the fires raged, however, legislators had other matters on their mind.

In a state with deep financial problems, the Assembly found time to give its employees a six-percent pay raise that boosted the $200,000 annual salary of Dan Eaton, chief of staff to Speaker Fabian Nunez, by a full $12,000. In the last two years, the Assembly has increased Mr. Eaton’s pay by $42,000. Steve Maviglio, spokesman for Speaker Nunez, got a $9,900 boost to his salary of $165,000.

Here is a lesson for everyone. Even when fire drives Californians from their homes and blackens the earth, in government quarters it’s always the Golden State. CRO

copyright 2007 Pacific Research Institute




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