Andrew's scapegoats

Glenn Garvin

September 03, 1992|By Glenn Garvin

Coral Gables, Fla. -- AS Hurricane Andrew gave its final shriek and retreated into the Everglades last Monday I knew we were really in trouble.

Within minutes my worst fears were realized. The tiny screen of my battery-powered TV overflowed with the unctuous faces of politicians taking credit and assigning blame, promising and demanding comfort.

The particulars varied, but there were a few constant themes: Someone else should have predicted the hurricane earlier, prepared for it better, provided more aid for its victims.

Since local politicians had quicker access to Miami television, the guilty "someone else" almost always turned out to be the federal government. One of Dade County's emergency planners actually seemed near tears as she wailed accusations against Washington, as though George Bush's evil henchmen were lying down in front of Miami-bound relief trains.

I watched in fascination, waiting to see if she would accuse the National Hurricane Center of hatching Andrew in a secret laboratory, but my television's batteries failed.

The hysterical hunt for the guilty in the wake of a natural disaster seems to be a peculiarly American phenomenon.

I've been in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Mexico immediately after hurricanes and earthquakes and I've never heard the kind of accusatory whining that dominated the Miami airwaves for the past 10 days. Not even the arrival of the Army has stifled it.

Only Americans seem to believe that they have constitutional protection against the forces of nature.

Perhaps I should say, only American politicians believe it. Along with some reporters -- who seemed visibly relieved that they could quit covering an actual event and return to their ordinary routine of sticking a microphone in officials' faces -- they were almost the only ones I actually heard complaining.

Out in the streets most people were too busy stringing tarpaulins over damaged roofs, clearing felled trees and cleaning up broken glass to worry about bureaucratic posturing.

Ordinary citizens weren't waiting for Mr. Bush. By Wednesday the southbound lanes of Interstate 95 were clogged with private relief convoys from Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana and all points in Florida.

Local radio stations broadcast nearly non-stop offers of help and news of collection points for donations. Admittedly, the generosity of contributors sometimes exceeded their common sense.

One disk jockey plaintively asked listeners to stop donating so many Ouija boards.

The vast majority of aid, however, was on target -- and this seemed to frighten the bureaucrats, who recoil from spontaneity like vampires from a cross. Their attempts to regain control were alternately hilarious and maddening.

The day after the hurricane, as I ventured out in search of flashlight batteries, I was delighted to see that malfunctioning traffic lights on a major east-west thoroughfare had been replaced by a volunteer army of amateur traffic cops who worked with both efficiency and elan.

Sure enough, by the next morning newscasters were reading stern warnings that nobody was allowed to direct traffic without first attending a county traffic-directing class.

The penalties for disobedience were not spelled out: forfeiture of the right to use county parking meters?

Happily, most volunteer traffic directors ignored them, just as most people ignored official orders to stop driving carloads of ice to the electricity-less southern part of the county, decrees ostensibly issued on the grounds that "disorganized" ice is worse than no ice at all.

Listening to these kinds of threats spew forth I understood another a strange spectacle I'd witnessed repeatedly. The Miami area has a number of toll roads, but immediately after the hurricane they were declared free.

Since then the toll booths have been empty -- but most drivers still stop at them.

At first I couldn't figure it out, but now it's clear to me: Citizens simply can't believe their government could do something so sensible.

Glenn Garvin is author of "Everybody Had His Own Gringo: The CIA and the Contras."

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