Katy Burns: Waves of destruction, tragedy and shortsighted politicians

  • An overturned trailer is shown in a trailer park in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma on Wednesday in Bahia Honda Key, Fla. AP

  • A woman and her two children walk past debris left by Hurricane Irma in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, on Sept. 10. AP

  • A house rests on the beach after collapsing off a cliff from Hurricane Irma in Vilano Beach, Fla., on Friday. AP

Monitor columnist
Published: 9/17/2017 12:10:16 AM

At first the news from a nursing home in Hollywood, Fla., was just sad. Three elderly people in a nursing home had died as the facility lost its air conditioning because of Hurricane Irma. Things like this will inevitably happen, of course.

Footage of orderlies moving sick old people in wheelchairs or carts from a building was heartbreaking to behold.

But it quickly got worse. As I write this, eight people – the frailest of the frail – are dead, and 39 more of these helpless victims remain hospitalized. Plus, it turns out, the nursing home – quite good looking from the outside – had a lousy record of sanitation and safety. Which of course didn’t stop it from operating. And that air conditioning? Wasn’t working too well anyway.

Sadly, there is a hospital just across the street from the care facility. No one there knew the plight of the fragile residents until a suspicious doctor from the hospital led a delegation of medics to see what was going on in the home.

It’s a particularly terrible story from the weather front in the last two weeks. But hardly the only one.

There was the off-duty cop in Houston who decided to try to help when, on his way to work, he drove into a flooded underpass and drowned while some of his co-workers waited, helpless, for dawn before they could safely go after him.

And the old couple, fleeing in a panic with their four great-grandchildren, who were swept from the road into a raging river. All died.

Precious pets were cradled by owners as they scrambled into rescuers’ boats, while other unspeakably cruel owners abandoned their animal charges, in some particularly horrific cases leaving them tied to trees and fences to await the rising water.

We stared, horrified, at footage of once-idyllic Caribbean islands – some of them small nations whose only assets were their extraordinary natural beauty – stripped of their lush foliage and essentially destroyed while their residents wander the bleak and barren landscape.

Irma visited similar destruction on the Florida Keys, an archipelago of tiny islands perched precariously in the sea off the tip of the state. Almost every building was in splinters, boats were tossed hither and yon like matchsticks and roads were washed away.

And yet, on a prosperous barrier island not too far removed from the Keys, most beautiful homes were almost unscathed, and a well-known wildlife sanctuary – treasured for its exotic bird population – was spared by a quixotic last-minute change in the hurricane’s path.

And we – safely removed here in New Hampshire, where we waited for a more welcome natural event, the changing of the foliage to autumnal colors – had a front seat to it all.

It wasn’t always thus. As we were reminded by a piece by Patrick Roberts in the Washington Post, until recently disasters were most often things that happened far away. We learned of them after the fact, and a federal response was fitful at best.

In 1906 a terrible earthquake left more than 3,000 people dead in San Francisco and fully three-quarters of the city flattened. In response, President Theodore Roosevelt wired the California governor: “Hear rumors of great disaster through an earthquake at San Francisco but know nothing of the real facts.” The commerce secretary was dispatched to investigate, and days after the disaster the Red Cross responded on the federal government’s behalf.

In today’s 24/7 information glut, of course, news of horrific disasters travels the world in seconds. We not only have FEMA – vastly improved since the disastrous nadir of George W. Bush’s hapless director Michael Brown – but a host of other governmental entities ready to step in and serve the dispossessed. The U. S. Coast Guard, with its dramatic orange rescue helicopters, was particularly conspicuous in the Houston flooding in Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath.

Now the cleanup and rebuilding begin. And God only knows where those mountains of contaminated wreckage and destroyed cars will end up. Wherever it is, it will be bad and inevitably lead to future problems. Count on it.

Meanwhile, it’s interesting to note that lawmakers in Texas – members of whose congressional delegation self-righteously voted against federal funds for residents of New Jersey and other states left bereft by Hurricane Sandy – have chosen for years not to tax themselves even as in places like Houston they eschew even minimal zoning laws, allowing development in incredibly fragile environments.

Yet they are loudly demanding that the U.S. government they so often denigrate help them now.

And, of course, they’ll get the help. Without demands that, in return, they should tax themselves as well, to avoid sponging off their more responsible neighbors. And they will likely continue allowing rampant and irresponsible development, because that is just what they do.

Who is to tell them no? Certainly not the current U.S. Congress. And even more certainly not the current administration, which is zealously slashing every federal program – including, amazingly, FEMA – that can help future victims or help to guard against continuing environmental disasters.

And about climate change and the warming of the oceans – which scientists virtually all agree will continue to contribute to more and greater storms wreaking havoc on our coastal environments – well, the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency has a convenient answer for your question.

“To have any focus on the cause and effect of the storm, versus helping people, or actually facing the effect of the storm, is misplaced,” Scott Pruitt told CNN.

It is, he solemnly intones (with a straight face) to all who will listen, “insensitive” to the victims of climate change and warming to discuss climate change and warming right now.

But don’t despair! We will, of course, always have presidential visits to scenes of the inevitable natural disasters to come. So many crowds of thankful citizens! So many TV cameras to parade and preen before!

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)

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