Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Should "better off" homeowners be (better) prepared to shelter people personally after disasters?

There have been, around the world and in the US, a number of huge physical catastrophes or natural disasters, displacing large numbers of people at once.  The very worst might be the tsunami in Japan in March 2011, compounded by the nuclear power plant meltdown.  But in the US we’ve seen increasingly violent, wide, and long tracking tornadoes (Greensberg, Tuscaloosa, Joplin, Moore and Enid OK); hurricanes or hybrid ocean superstorms  (Katrina and Sandy), wildfires, and bizarre disasters affecting fewer people, like sinkholes and mudslides or ground cliff collapse.   Many other scenarios can be examined, such as Atlantic tsunamis or solar superstorms, as well as manmade catastrophes (EMP).
The “normal” thing is to have homeowner’s or renter’s insurance, which may not be effective very quickly if an area has widespread damage.   To that homeowners may need to ad federally subsidized flood insurance, or earthquake or sinkhole, given the laws of the state of residence.   FEMA has made a spectacle of its trailers (with all their problems including volatile contaminants).  Homeowner insurance premiums are rising rapidly everywhere.  Homeowners all over the entire country will pay for the increased damage in coastal and mid-continental areas – but it can happen to anyone. 

So there’s the “grab a hammer” ethic (TV blog, Aug. 29, 2007, note the first comment on an Anderson Cooper report on Katrina volunteerism).  Can US companies do a better job of rebuilding (albeit cookie cutter homes) than individual rehab volunteers?   Probably.  Church groups sent people to New Orleans, and volunteers often were not allowed to do much because of mold. 

I volunteered on the phone lines for the Red Cross for a while in September 2005 (when I was also substitute teaching),  and found for most callers, all you could do was send them to the FEMA 800 number and wait for hours.   But sometimes there were callers with medical problems (diabetes) and it was gratifying to find a nurse on the floor who could help them immediately.
The LDS (Mormon) Church was said to be unusually effective in sending help for Katrina, and it does take care of its own very well.

Om 2005, people were indeed housed hundreds of miles away from New Orleans, often in Texas;  a few hundred were housed in the DC area/ 

Given the possible scale and suddenness of a possible “event”, there’s another ethical and possibly policy question to ask.  Should persons or families (or households) with greater than average living space per person be expected to be prepared to receive people with “radical hospitality”?  Keeping a home ready for an improbable but perhaps eventual event, prepared to have children or disabled as well as ordinary adults ready – in terms of cleanliness, and removal of possible hazards like lead or  residual or undetected asbestos in older homes – could be very daunting for many people – including me.  Tax policies encouraging such practices can certainly be imagined.

Today, outside a Metro Station in the DC area, in a relatively well-off area, I saw a woman with a typical cardboard sign, “lost everything to fire, have three boys”.  I wondered, where is the husband (non-existent) or father(s); why did she have no insurance, etc.   There seems to be a deeper moral question here. 

Update: June 14

Washington DC ABC affiliate WJLA reports that homeowners who sustain damage to their own power meters or line on private property have to hire private electricians to do those repairs before power companies will restore power.  That means getting an estimate from the insurance company first, and usually the insurer has a list of contractors who will honor the settlement rates.  That takes even longer to get done.  

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