By Greg O'Brien Codfish Press
Our war on terror has shifted, for the moment, from extremists like Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri to radicals like Rita and Katrina. But don’t be fooled—a catastrophic Category 4 or 5 hurricane has all the force of a suitcase nuke or the hydrogen bomb dropped in Hiroshima. As the beast Rita bore down last week on Texas and storm-battered Louisiana, Homeland Security, dead off course from the start, was being retooled, refocused and redefined. The knuckleheads at the top are finally getting the point: we must protect our shores before we move into the heartland and worlds beyond.
No surprise here, presidential hopefuls, governors of coastal states, and hybrids like Gov. Mitt Romney are rushing to the podium or mugging for the cameras to declare their take on the issue. The problem is they are about as equipped to forecast as the unwary victims of the Great Storm of 1938 that devastated New England—“the wind that shook the world.” That's a Boston Herald front page about that storm on the right.
In full bluster, Romney, mulling a run for the White House in 2008, grabbed the megaphone, the political conch shell, recently to proclaim the obvious: that Hurricane Katrina has caused more economic damage than the Sept. 11 terrorist attack and that the government response to the storm had been “undermanaged” and an “embarrassment,” notes to an Associated Press report. “This has not been a showcase for American ingenuity,” Romney said during a Statehouse news conference earlier this month.
Yeah, but is Massachusetts? The quick sound bite—and we’ve all heard it—is that the Bay State is different than Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. “We’re not a city under water or below sea level, like New Orleans,” Romney said. But Governor, a pile of rubble is a pile of rubble. And if we get hit some day with another storm like the Hurricane of ’38—which is as sure as frost in February—rescue workers won’t be able to tell the difference between Baton Rouge and Barnstable.
A 50-foot tidal surge hit New England in 1938
The ’38 storm, with its 50-foot tidal surge, claimed 564 lives in New England and left 100,000 homeless at a time when the population was a quarter of what it is today. We’ll need to do far more than conduct monthly reviews, as Romney has directed, of the state’s plan for responding to natural disasters and terrorist attacks.
Asked if Massachusetts was prepared to evacuate large numbers of people in the wake of a catastrophic storm or detonation of a dirty bomb, Romney replied in an AP report, “The answer is yes, to a degree…Knowing what has to be evacuated and where people are going is something you would only learn at the time of the attack.”
You’re forgetting something, Governor—frontline public safety response, and the fact that we’re down a few quarts. A legislative report last year cautioned that 92 percent of the Commonwealth’s fire departments and 83 percent of its police departments are not prepared for such an emergency. He who lives in the midst of a seaport city with glass high rises ought not to be the first to throw a stone.
Far better, Governor, to duck and take shelter, particularly if you’re hoping to live some day in a white house with a lot of windows.