A Faster Response in Hawaii

September 15, 1992

It's taken a couple of record hurricanes, but the White House and federal disaster officials seem finally to have gotten their act together. President Bush had barely awakened the morning after Hurricane Iniki smashed into Kauai Friday when he declared the Hawaiian island a disaster area. Army and Navy units were already headed from nearby bases and, wonder of wonders, Federal Emergency Management Agency advance teams were on the island even before the storm struck.

Washington's response to natural disasters like the major storms that hit South Florida last month and Kauai last week -- the sort of calamities state and local governments cannot handle by themselves -- should not have political implications. Citizens of a country as highly developed as this one should be able to assume that their national government will immediately come to their relief with food, water, medical aid, shelter and restored public utilities. But FEMA's slow response to Hurricane Andrew last month, following similar complaints after Hurricane Hugo and the San Francisco earthquake in 1989, injured the president politically and touched off some partisan finger-pointing. It was especially embarrassing for Mr. Bush since Florida is a state he badly needs to carry in November.

Cleanup and emergency assistance seem well under way on Kauai. Fortunately the human toll seems again to be low $H considering the severity of the storm, thanks in part to good advance warning. As in Florida and Louisiana, the storm missed a nearby densely populated area -- Oahu in this case -- that would have been a costlier target.

Now the question on Kauai, as well as in South Florida, is how well government at all levels responds to the human and economic toll of the storms in the long run. Restoring essential services, feeding and sheltering the homeless and providing emergency assistance is only a beginning. Both regions have been crippled economically, and many survivors have seen their livelihoods wiped out -- if not permanently, then for months or years to come. Public attention -- and therefore political impact -- tends to flag once the immediate aftermath of a disaster is dealt with. The true test of leadership, of worthiness to lead a county, city, state or nation, is how well officials respond to the less sensational but longer-lasting human and economic needs of devastated areas.

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