I live in Southern California in an area of San Diego County that is not threatened by flames.
My heart breaks for every person who was caught in the path of the raging firestorms: those who lost their homes and treasured pets and possessions; those who saw children and loved ones irreparably traumatized by fear and grief; those who, in memory and nightmares, will relive for the rest of their lives the horror of a wall of flame, swept by hurricane force winds, advancing toward them; those whose loved ones perished, leaving them forever without a loving and crucial part of their lives. There is no compassionate way to compare this kind of misery to any other disaster.
I am proud to say that the people of Southern California responded to their neighbors with open-armed generosity; tales of heroism and unselfishness abound. There are thousands of stories of joyful families returning to homes that escaped the flames or were miraculously saved by slightly crazed homeowners or brave firefighters. Governmental agencies, for the most part, worked together to speed assistance, providing firefighting resources, evacuation coordination, and protection and shelter for evacuees.
However, I am appalled, in this pre-election year, at the continual rounds of self-congratulations and mutual praise politicians have indulged in over the perceived improvement of response to national disasters since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Southern California has become the favored poster child example of bureaucratic success held up in elation by campaigning political parties. Patting each other on the back, elected officials dare to proclaim this disaster irrefutable proof of how much better *everything* was handled in comparison to Katrina.
San Diego County did everything right and received rapid support from governmental and private sector agencies, local businesses, emergency services, law enforcement and firefighting personnel, and volunteers. But, to compare the 2007 wildfire devastation in Southern California to the 2005 Katrina disaster is ludicrous. To claim that any special qualities or resources made the difference in how each of the disasters was handled ignores the spectacular variance in circumstances.
The most obvious differences between the two are water and fire, but the contributions of assistance organizations and volunteers and the responsiveness of governmental agencies have also been points of comparison, although the situations during the two disasters were not even close to the same.
After researching the two disasters on the Internet, here are some of the differences, as I see them:
The Greater New Orleans Area with a population of approximately 1.4 million people before Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005 rebounded to a July 2005 figure of about 70% of the pre-Katrina number. An analysis released in August 2007 estimated the population of the city to be 273,000, 60% of the pre-Katrina population.
At 24.5 percent, Orleans Parish had the sixth-highest poverty rate among U.S. counties.
The population of San Diego County is about 3 million people.
San Diego County, where most of the more than 800,000 wildfire evacuees live, is predominantly white (66 percent) and well to do (9 percent poverty rate).
Most of the city of New Orleans was flooded with water because the levees failed. Many who remained in their homes had to swim for their lives, wade through deep water, or remain trapped in their attics or on their rooftops until rescued. The devastation covered all the surrounding communities in the path of the hurricane.
Total land area in 2000 for the Greater New Orleans area, which includes 10 Louisiana Parishes, was 4,859.31 square miles with a population density of 520.7 persons per square mile.
There were 1723 deaths across seven states, with the Greater New Orleans area reporting more than 931 fatalities.
Destruction cost estimates of flood damage to the city of New Orleans alone reached nearly $23 billion.
Nearly a million Southern Californians fled their homes in seven counties when the Southern California wildfires swept through communities in relatively narrow strips, defined by the availability of flammable fuel and the direction of the prevailing Santa Anna winds toward the west, leaving the majority of the surrounding communities untouched. The major cities of Los Angeles and San Diego were never threatened.
Total land area in 2000 for San Diego County was 4,199.89 square miles with a population density of 670 persons per square mile.
Thanks to quick action by authorities and the Reverse 911 notifications to threatened neighborhoods, fewer than ten deaths were reported in Southern California. (With fires still burning out of control and damaged property inspections not completed, the final total is not in, but is expected to be low.)
In hardest-hit San Diego County, nine wildfires devastated over 450 square miles, more than a tenth of the County’s total area. Preliminary estimates for the replacement of destroyed residences are currently at $1 billion.
COMMUNICATIONS AND INFRASTRUCTURE
Many telephones, including most cell phones, and Internet access were not working due to line breaks, destruction of base stations, or power failures, even though some base stations had their own back-up generators.
Most of the major roads traveling into and out of the city were damaged. The twin span Interstate10 Bridge collapsed leading east towards Slidell, Louisiana. The only routes out of the city were west on the Crescent City Connection and The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, which was able to handle emergency traffic only.
Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport was closed before the storm and was flooded. It was not fully reopened until September 13.
Telephone service was down in affected areas because of power failures. Cell phone service was uninterrupted, although voluntary restrictions were requested in order to free up access for firefighters and emergency services.
Road closures were announced for portions of nine different state highways due to fire damage, risk from active fires, and downed power lines. Fire related damage is still being assessed. North/South Interstates 5 and 15 were temporarily closed for up to five hours in one or both directions during periods of high risk from approaching flames and clouds of smoke that blocked visibility.
There were no airport closures, although, some flights were routed to other airports during the strongest of the Santa Anna winds.
EVACUATIONS & SHELTERS
The storm damaged Louisiana Superdome was used as a "shelter of last resort" for those in New Orleans to wait out the storm if they were unable to evacuate or to await further evacuation. There was insufficient food and water for the 24,000 evacuees and the area outside the Superdome was flooded to a depth of three feet. (Wading through chest high water would tend to discourage even the most determined Good Samaritan.) Evacuees were also sheltered in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center where conditions were appallingly similar to the Superdome.
On August 31, Governor Blanco ordered that all of New Orleans, including the Superdome, be evacuated. Despite this, many remained (mainly the elderly and poor). Ninety percent of the residents of southeast Louisiana were evacuated.
FEMA had announced that, in conjunction with Greyhound, the National Guard, and Houston Metro, the 25,000 people at the Superdome would be relocated across state lines to the Houston Astrodome. By September 4, the Superdome had been completely evacuated.
Evacuees in San Diego County were sheltered in facilities throughout the County with over 11,000 evacuees finding safe haven at Qualcomm Stadium where they were supplied with, according to an Washington Post editorial, “cots and tents, plenty of water and a variety of foods, arts and crafts for children, crisis counseling, meditation, yoga, acupuncture, and AA meetings for adults.”
Most of San Diego County was unaffected by the flames, allowing local businesses to keep their doors open and kind-hearted people to drive to Qualcomm bringing food and supplies in response to needs announced by local media.
Forty-five shelters were established for large (22) and small (23) animals in Santa Barbara, Riverside, Imperial, San Bernardino, San Diego, Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange Counties.
The current official report shows the following statistics:
STATE OPERATIONS CENTER SITUATION REPORT
SOCAL OCTOBER 2007 WILD LAND FIRES
October 26, 2007; 1000 Hours
Reported Injuries: 61
Number in Shelters: 4,512 in 41 shelters
Total Acres Burned to Date: 497,669
Structures Destroyed: 2,092
Structures Threatened: 22,075
The losses to individuals, in both disasters, are incalculable. However, we also should remember that the sheer magnitude of Katrina’s devastation dwarfs the overall impact of all the 2007 Southern California Wildfires combined.
Thank you, to every firefighter, law enforcement officer, military and National Guard personnel, and pilot who risked his or her own life in the battle to save lives and property throughout Southern California.
For a review of governmental response during Katrina, visit this link: