After the flood: Once again, bureaucrats are all wet

Mike Royko

April 20, 1992|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

A friend once spent a summer working at a national park in a Western state. He was there when a forest fire broke out and came close to being killed. It was believed that the fire began because someone didn't put out a campfire.

He told me that for a long time he had nightmares about it. Not about being burned, but about a match starting a fire that spread through the forest and all over the world.

There's something of that nightmare in Chicago's underground flood. This wasn't nature suddenly rearing up and roaring, as happens when a tornado touches down, a swollen river pours over its banks, the earth begins to shake, a tornado blows its stack or a hurricane flattens homes.

This was man-made.

And the nightmare is that it could have been so easily avoided. As we now know, leakage from the Chicago river into the city's old railroad tunnel system was spotted months ago. It was reported. The problem was passed along the bureaucratic process.

Someone in the process who happened to have brains even said that this is a dangerous situation and something must be done immediately or there might be a disaster.

But bureaucrats will be bureaucrats. They don't live in a world where the alarm goes off, you jump out of bed, slide down a pole, leap aboard a red engine and go roaring off to fight a fire.

Theirs is a world of memos, meetings, guidelines, input, output, studies, consultation, and forms, forms and more forms.

So because someone didn't say, "let's fix it right now, not later," we're watching a $25,000 problem grow into one that will cost billions before it is over years from now, when the last lawsuit is settled.

A small patch job. Probably done in a day. That's all it would have taken, and life would be going on in what passes for normalcy around here.

Someone should do a book. Not on the leak itself because that's a fairly simple story. You have a hole, so the question is, how do you plug it?

But on the workings of the minds of those who were in the bureaucratic process that leisurely passed the budding disaster along the line.

If you could get into their heads and find out what they were thinking about, if they were thinking at all, we would have answers to a lot of society's problems. What are the mental processes of those who can hear the alarm bell ring and react by looking in the index of a manual under "a" for alarm bells to see what the proper procedure is? And when they find it, make a Xerox copy and put it in the out-basket for someone else to study?

It would be fascinating to know how they managed to reach so many non-decisions and take so many non-courses of non-action. Hey, you're told, there's a hole in the river, and we could have a hell of a mess. Oh, really? Well, then fill out form A1862-B in triplicate and schedule a meeting for a week from Friday. So what are you doing for lunch?

But I doubt if such a book could be written. Bureaucrats don't like to talk about the way their brains function. And if you opened the heads of this bunch, a lot of folders and paper clips would probably fall out.

In a way, we're lucky. In most disasters, people are killed or hurt. San Francisco's last big earthquake took lives. Tornadoes have killed in Chicago and suburbs. Hurricanes take no prisoners.

This is a bottom-line disaster, which figures, since Chicago has always been a bottom-line town. Yes, people are being inconvenienced in getting to and from their jobs. But nobody has been hurt. At least not yet. It's always possible that Mayor Richard M. Daley might order a department head or two dropped from the roof of City Hall, an act that would assure his re-election.

Most of the stress is being felt by downtown building superintendents, corporate executives, bureaucrats and politicians, which is OK, since they're being paid for it. And they are probably feeling less misery than some working stiff and his family might, when flood waters and mud cover their bungalow and all their possessions. Or swirling winds turn their home into a heap of rubble. The big department stores and other merchants will survive. They can always hold a water sale -- 50 percent off on anything that's damp.

The most severe discomfort will be felt by those who took part in the bureaucratic bungle and will be out in the hurtful world of private enterprise, looking for a paycheck.

What will they say when a personnel manager asks: "Now, why did you leave your job in city government at this particular time?"

When something like this happens, we're supposed to look past the damage and ask: "What have we learned? What lessons has this taught us?" That is known as positive thinking, which I try to avoid.

Some people are already saying that this is a warning that we must do something about the infrastructures of cities.

But we already knew that. And since cities are run by Democrats and the White House is run by Republicans, it's unlikely that cities will have the money to fix their infrastructures.

Besides, this really isn't about a collapsing infrastructure. It is about some river pilings being hammered into the wrong place and piercing an underground tunnel. And it is about bureaucrats who don't feel a sense of urgency until the office clock approaches quitting time.

So I'm not sure what we've learned from this, except that if they are given enough time, and there's a way to screw something up, bureaucrats will find it.

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