It's an Ill Wind, Especially for the Taxpayers


September 09, 1991|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- When the hurricane known as Bob began its progress up the Atlantic coast last month, we had just arrived for two weeks in a rented house on a southern New England beach. Naturally, we listened to the weather reports with more than casual interest.

Years ago, in 1938 and 1954 especially, hurricanes were able tsneak up on the Northeast without much advance notice. No more. By the time Bob had reached hurricane strength, weather analysts knew just about everything about him except, with any certainty, where he was going to end up.

Available to us around the clock were both the deadpabroadcasts on the marine VHF radio from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, known familiarly and appropriately as Noah, and the much more gee-whiz cable-television weather channel with its computerized maps and film clips of booming surf and wind-whipped trees. Long before Bob blew in, we probably knew more about him than was good for us, but there's no doubt we were prepared.

The storm itself was scary and spectacular. The morning wawindless, with an oily calm on the sea. Later on the sky turned a bilious green, and little by little the wind rose as the last boats hurried toward shelter.

We had a large and early hot lunch, in the expectation that thpower would be going out. It did, in early afternoon. On the beach, the surf pounded ever harder, and salt spray reached far inland. Trees bent and snapped. The television antenna, weather vane, and a small section of shingles were blown from the roof of the house. A flat stone, set as a sort of rain cap over the chimney, came crashing down.

Soon it was over. The sun broke through, and a huge perfecrainbow arched from horizon to horizon. We switched on the battery-powered marine radio, and eventually Noah came back on the air to tell us that Bob was bound for Maine.

That evening, and for a couple of days afterward, we cookeover an outdoor fire -- dead wood was plentiful -- and played Trivial Pursuit by candlelight. It didn't much dampen our vacation, and as we began to receive later reports it became clear that while Bob had certainly wreaked havoc, his passing hadn't been as much of a disaster as the early reports had led us to expect.

Obviously, that's a matter of perspective. To someone whosbeloved boat was sunk, or whose grocery store was crunched by a falling tree, the storm would have naturally been a personal cataclysm. Bob also put a real dent in the last weeks of coastal Massachusetts' prime tourist season, leaving tourist-dependent businesses in pain.

But did all the damage, real and perceived, actually warrant thfederal disaster assistance for which the governors of several northeastern states were immediately pleading? Or, put another way, should the taxpayers of Idaho and Maryland subsidize a bailout of those battered by Bob? You can make a persuasive case on both moral and economic grounds that they should not.

The same arguments can and should be applied closer to homeIn Garrett County, the Wisp ski area is in deep trouble, and bailout talk is in the air. Wisp is important to the fragile Garrett County economy, and its owners, blaming the resort's difficulties on warm winters rather than their own management, want loan guarantees.

Private lenders won't help the resort without protectinthemselves against the likelihood of default by charging market-driven interest rates. So Wisp wants the county or the state to underwrite low-interest loans of several million dollars to keep it operating. It's a bad idea.

If Wisp can't operate efficiently under the present managementnTC it ought to go out of business, letting someone else come in to buy the assets -- the mountain, the trails and the ski lodge aren't going to vanish into thin air. And if the assets were to bring only fire-sale prices, then so much the better; the new owners would have more money available to build a self-sufficient operation.

One problem with a taxpayer-funded rescue mission, whether ibe of Wisp, Chrysler, or a Cape Cod miniature golf course, is that it doesn't encourage efficiency, and usually only postpones the process of collapse and reorganization. Another problem is that no matter how many dollars are stuffed into one end of the government pipeline, a lot fewer come out the other end.

A third problem, and perhaps the most difficult, is one of equityTraditionally, few Americans object to having their taxes used to alleviate genuine disaster relief -- to providing food and medical supplies to victims, say, or repairing storm-damaged public facilities. But they look upon bailouts of politically well-connected businesses with a much more jaundiced eye.

Hurricane Bob was an ill wind, all right, as well as a big one. Anin the wake of his blustery passage, it might be a good time to challenge the idea that everyone buffeted by an adverse breeze ought to be entitled to a grant, a subsidy, or a low-interest loan.


Peter A. Jay's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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