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Alec, last week your note took us to South Africa, and since this is my very first venture into the Swamp, I thought I might follow your lead and take us on another virtual field trip. Today, we are going to the Hawaiian island of Maui.
As you know, a series of wildfires two weeks ago has led to the death of more than 114 people and left another 1,000 unaccounted for.
Residents are blaming state, local and federal officials for that shockingly high human toll. One official has already resigned.
Hawaiians said they received little to no warning as fast-moving flames neared their homes. Next to the stories of those who fled into the ocean to avoid the blaze, perhaps the most striking were reports of the long wait for aid. (Officials now say that hundreds of first responders are on the ground, setting up shelters and distributing emergency payments for food and water.)
The resulting fury is (rightfully) bipartisan. Hawaii’s governor, Democrat Josh Green, ordered an official review of the decision not to utilise the island’s emergency siren system. Conservatives allege that emergency services might not have failed as severely as they did if the US did not send so many resources to Ukraine.
In reality, federal disaster management has been a politicised mess for decades.
I will never forget the catastrophic response by the administration of George W Bush to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I was only nine years old at the time, but I vividly remember wondering why the government did not do more. A new girl joined my third grade class a few weeks after the storm, having relocated to Tennessee after losing everything they had in New Orleans. It was clear that her family’s needs had gone unanswered.
I now can guess that her family had fallen through the cracks of our patchwork response system. It is run by an alphabet soup of strained federal agencies. There is no central administrator. Research shows that those without the documentation, internet access, time and knowhow to navigate this bureaucracy receive little to no aid.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which leads the recovery efforts after national disasters in the US, is understaffed and financially reliant on congressional supplemental funding bills that too often get caught up in fights over other issues. FEMA’s administrator has already warned that its relief fund will run out of money by the end of the month. Peak hurricane season has just begun.
Legislation passed after Katrina, and then more passed after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, was supposed to fix these problems. I think it is safe to say that it has not.
Why do we allow our government to inflict more pain on those who are already living through their worst nightmare?
Advocates for what is being called “disaster justice” are campaigning for significant reforms at the recovery institutions, saying that their programmes work too slowly, are too complex and disproportionately assist wealthy white communities. Activists also demand that officials move past wrangling over climate denialism and excessive government spending to invest in infrastructure that could mitigate the impact of storms and fires in the first place. They make some good points.
I could go on for pages and pages with tales of human suffering compounded by our woefully inadequate emergency response system — from Hurricane Harvey in Texas to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico to the tornadoes I’ve had to endure in Tennessee — but I am told that this newsletter has a word limit. Fellow Swampians, believe me when I say that this problem runs wide and deep.
All signs indicate that human-caused climate change is making these weather events more frequent and more severe, and that for political reasons, our defences are inadequate. Let’s take this moment to think long and hard about how we can remedy that.
Alec, how do the stories coming out of Hawaii compare with disaster responses in the various places where you have lived and reported?
I loved this episode of the FT Weekend podcast on how politicians have delved into another realm where they probably do not belong — pasta.
My colleagues Anna Nicolaou and Christopher Grimes wrote a lovely obituary for the era of cheap streaming. Hollywood studios are dialling back on new shows and allegedly underpaying their talent. I wonder if we will still pay up.
As an avid swimmer, I thoroughly enjoyed reading a series of excellent writers sharing their treasured memories of various hotel pools.
Our FTWeekend Festival is back on Saturday, September 2 at Kenwood House Gardens, London. Book your pass today to enjoy a day of debates, tastings, Q&As and more . . . As a newsletter subscriber, claim £20 off your festival pass using promo code FTWFxNewsletters at: ft.com/festival
Alec Russell responds
Your powerful post, Taylor, on the at-best patchy official response to the wildfire in Hawaii hit home on a number of fronts. When reading about this in recent days I too found myself thinking of New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina.
When the storm hit Louisiana — 18 years ago next week — I raced there from Washington where I was based as a reporter and was stunned and appalled by the spasmodic response. Yes, some of the reports of anarchy that were aired soon after the levees broke were exaggerated and in some cases false. But the overall impression at the time of a state utterly failing to cope stands up to scrutiny.
City, state and federal agencies all failed — and all with dreary inevitability fell out with each other and blamed one another. President Bush took most of the blame, and ultimately rightly so; his curious impression of disengagement in the early days — remember the picture of him flying over the city and his endorsement of Michael Brown, the then-head of FEMA — embodied the sense of a system that had not responded as decisively as it should have.
But the crisis also exposed terrible weaknesses in the structure of disaster management. At the time this seemed baffling to me. There I was working in the world’s (then) only superpower and yet the initial response seemed as ineffectual as in many countries in the Middle East and Africa where I had covered humanitarian disasters.
To be fair to your country, Taylor, once the recovery engine whirred into life it was very impressive to watch. The deployment of the military to New Orleans after a few days — including elite units I had last witnessed in Iraq — soon brought order to the response. I also observed some stunning cases of individuals rising to the occasion and risking their lives to save others.
But the idea that FEMA is still unfit for purpose is terribly depressing. It is a call to arms to us in the media too. So often the coverage of disasters follows a predictable narrative that ends with critiques of the aid agencies a week after the crisis — and then nothing.
Maybe you should be asking the FT’s foreign editor to endorse the idea of sending you to Hawaii in a few months time to do a major follow up . . .
Read more from Alec Russell in today’s Big Read on the “à la carte world”, our new geopolitical order. This is the first in a series on how the stand-off between America and China has ushered in a new era of opportunity for countries across the world.
And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In response to “Donald Trump, Jacob Zuma and issues of accountability”:
It is worth pointing out that Zuma has been ejected from the South African body politic much more decisively than Trump has from US politics. His attempts at a comeback in and outside the African National Congress party have been firmly rebuffed. That has not yet happened with Trump. — JP Landman