There Are Lessons in Hurricanes Someone Should Learn Them

JAMES J. KILPATRICK

September 02, 1992|By JAMES J. KILPATRICK

CAHRLESTON, S.C. — Charleston, S.C.--The Andrew school of hurricane instruction is a hard school. It teaches hard lessons. If our leaders do not learn their lessons from this disaster, one day they will have to repeat them.

In this regard, the city of Charleston could function as a kind of professor emeritus. Three years ago, Charleston learned its lessons the hard way. Hurricane Hugo struck the city with devastating force. Now Florida and Louisiana are digging out from the calamity of Hurricane Andrew, and the devastation is worse.

One of the lessons we should have learned from Hugo was not learned well enough. The National Guard has too many foot soldiers and not enough civil engineers. I know that efforts have been made to recast the Guard's training, but the effort has not been sufficiently pursued.

It is pointless, or so it seems to me, to train Guardsmen primarily in infantry tactics and artillery campaigns. Howitzers would not have helped at Homestead. There was destruction enough already. The foreseeable uses of the Guard are right here at home, whenever disaster strikes.

A useful reorganization would train Guardsmen to operate bulldozers, forklifts and dump trucks. Miami could have used hundreds of military police who had been instructed in traffic control and procedures for the control of looting.

It is necessary, of course, to train Guardsmen in the use of a rifle. No one would suggest that this be neglected. But what Miami needed last week was a Guardsman with a chain saw. Hurricanes are hell on trees.

When Hugo struck Charleston, pine trees snapped like broken pencils. Fallen limbs blocked the streets. Reconstruction couldn't begin until the worst of the debris was cleared.

All the priorities were first priorities. Electric power. Water. Telephone service. Charleston's Mayor Joe Riley added one more: disposable diapers.

As relief convoys poured in, it appeared that everyone had thought of food and clothing. No one had thought to supply Pampers, and the supermarkets were closed for repairs.

Three years ago, Charleston went though the same spasms of anger after Hugo that Florida is having after Andrew. Where was the promised help? Tempers flared. Fingers pointed.

Distraught residents damned the Federal Emergency Management Agency for supposed ineptitude, but after tempers cooled, a consensus developed that FEMA had not performed so badly after all.

Not even a hurricane can ruffle the feathers of bureaucracy. Mayor Riley recalls his frustration. Under the established procedures, if a crew worked on tree removal in the morning, and some of its members worked on food distribution in the afternoon, two forms had to be executed for purposes of payroll and accounting. Cutting through the red tape was worse than cutting through the tangled wires.

Here in Charleston, the city held postmortems in laying the blame. The mayor had not properly asked the governor for relief, or the governor had not executed the right request to the feds, or something else was not in proper sequence, and until the procedures were formally carried out, nothing could move.

It was maddening. Now is the time to clarify these procedures.

Hugo and Andrew have lessons to teach us. The loss of electric power is the worst loss of all. The Army and the Guard should be stockpiling generators and training men to put them in action.

It takes intensive training to develop linemen, but surely some degree of training could be made a part of a soldier's curriculum.

Everyone has homework to do. When the worst of the emergency has passed, civic leaders will have to think about laws to regulate rebuilding along the beaches. Building codes for mobile homes may need revision. What policy changes should be made in flood insurance?

A city devastated by hurricane or earthquake is a wounded city. In the immediate aftermath, a spirit prevails of something close to exhilaration. Look, we survived! As the impact strikes home, the mood shifts to one of despair. Look, we're wiped out.

The character of the people and the character of their local leadership will determine when the mood will shift again to acceptance and hope. Look, life goes on.

Three years after Hugo, Charleston has fully recovered. The blue roof tarpaulins have disappeared. This city is back in business. Miami will be, too.

James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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