Will Someone Dust Off the Bully Pulpit?
We haven't had a major donnybrook here since the Civil War, and it's not on the table as an option now. Which leaves us with natural disasters as a prime mover.( Speaking of civil, to keep the topic manageable, let's just pretend that the only possible disasters are ones that we have already seen, or have first-hand knowledge of, such as tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes or droughts.)
As we have seen from time to time, any of these weather events may inflict enormous destruction to life and properties in their respective paths, and sizable numbers of dislocated citizens in their wakes. As to manmade disasters (such as Lake Baikal or our own Three-Mile Island), it's fairer to say that we're better at selling the "benefits" of a course of actions, than we are at acknowledging the risks of pursuing them. We get zero points for professing naivete, after the fact.
A little light might dispel a bit of the darkness from this topic. It occurs to me that, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina especially, we are getting some messages in very clear terms:
1) Disasters, especially large-scale events like this, offer the opportunity for pundits and politicos alike to vainly assign knowable costs or predictable timetables to set things aright. Hyperbole and blame set aside, there are few comparable precedents with accurate enough accounting to predict either of these with much confidence. Historically, clean-up efforts have begun with much fanfare, only to die with a whimper at a later date.
2) Hurricane Rita, following close on the heels of Katrina, offered a grim reminder that, despite our superior technology and armed forces, our ability to preempt Mother Nature is not amenable to quick-fix approaches. Our previous attempts at jury-rigging the system (including the Army Corps of Engineers' efforts to unkink the Mississippi River) have, if anything, shown how much attention we spend on cautious analysis, and how little we spend on correcting known problems after the fact.
3) Many Americans still see disasters as a kind of "pay per view" event, but with twinges of compassion as an added incentive (Note: I'm not mocking or denigrating compassion, nor the desire to help those who need it. But, I am making a comment about the general inability to directly help from a distance, except through donations of food, clothing or money. The simple truth is, most of us are not mentally or fiscally able to drop whatever else we do with our lives, and pick up a hammer or shovel. We do as our consciences dictate, within our own limitations.) The real risk here is a false sense of security that stands to be unmasked, should nature's fury be directed into our own neighborhoods. Recent history continues to provide unlikely examples for us to learn from.
Part of the preparation for the unthinkable lies in the acknowledgement of what is possible, talking heads aside. How we, as the recipients of disasterous events, will cope with ourselves and our fellowmen turns largely on our personal perceptions and our abilities to see ourselves as either donors or recipients of aid, and how we, person to person, react to the situation. As a nation, we have seen that putting ourselves in the correct mindset (or even, an approximation thereof) to be of any use takes more time than is typically available. Putting the question in slightly different terms may change the way we view the answers: "Which parts of the problems created by disasters don't have purely monetary answers?" or, "Are there any parts of the problem that are not expeditiously solved by throwing bucketsfull of cash at them?" I'll wager that there are many places where sweat equity is the right currency, as, where, and when required.