What are our obligations to the foolish, denying, and covetous when natural disasters strike? Is it appropriate to put rescuers in danger when reality is willfully ignored and property put before life? Two tales from the field, you decide.
I stood on a narrow strip of land on a barrier beach known as Fire Island, in New York’s Long Island. A barrier beach is a thin strip of land that protects the mainland from the ocean, in this case, a smaller island that protects yet another island. One unique characteristic of a barrier beach is that they are indeed protection and take the worst of it in any storm.
Although Fire Island is a well-known playground of the middle to monied classes where vacation weeks regularly go for thousands and beautiful homes are to be found, it remains a slave to nature, and to hurricanes. When hurricanes roil the waters, Fire Island is completely submerged.
On this particular Summer afternoon I was discussing hurricanes with a law enforcement professional with whom I was having a casual conversation. When asked about the difficulty of evacuating stubborn people who insisted on “protecting” their homes from the relentless sea and hurricane force winds that regularly menace the Island, he explained that a new policy had been adopted.
Instead of insisting that homeowners vacate, officers were instructed to ask that next of kin’s name be provided. Upon being informed that the information was for post-mortem identification and being further advised that no officer would be dispatched until the conclusion of the storm, many previously hard-headed residents re-thought their position and moved to safety.
Second story, also true. The American Society of Civil Engineers is America’s largest and oldest Engineering Society and its members hail from a proud tradition of public service dating from its founding in the 1850s. Members of that society have been heavily involved in disaster relief and have provided necessary and unpaid volunteer assistance to FEMA.
During the 1995 Education Conference of that society, I met a senior civil engineer with thirty years of experience who had been involved in one of the worst floods in American history. He told me a story about human perversity that has remained with me to this day.
A dam broke upriver from a popular campground nestled in the mountains. The only thing standing between the complete annihilation of the campers was an overstressed dam that was temporarily holding back impending doom.
The police of the town moved into the area and insisted that the campers flee up into the hills to safety. Some immediately complied, but others waited.
The next on the scene was a salty state policeman who immediately began cursing and berating the stragglers, insisting that they immediately move. Shaken by the rougher approach, some joined their tardy brothers.
Finally, upon seeing that everyone had not yet complied, the chief of police himself appeared and begged the stragglers to save themselves. As the tears ran down his face, many were moved and finally began to comply.
Sometime later, the dam blew apart and all of those waiting for a fourth warning, and many of the slowpokes who moved too late, were washed to their deaths. Needless loss of life after three attempts, including who knows how many dedicated peace officers.
So I ask you, should police officers be obliged to risk life and limb for the headless and stupid? Men of bravery will never hesitate.
The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes, And Why, Amanda Ripley, Copyright 2008, Crown Publishers