When disaster strikes, people (and states) look for help

After a weekend devoted to the commemoration of the unnatural disaster of Sept. 11, 2001, it seems fitting to acknowledge that thousands of Americans are suffering today at the unforgiving hands of nature.

This is happening far — with wildfires in Texas — and near — with flooding in Pennsylvania.

Texas officials say the number of homes destroyed by a massive wildfire raging east of Austin has risen to more than 1,500. They also say 17 people are unaccounted for, although they acknowledge that some could simply be out of town and may show up. The blaze erupted a week ago when blustering winds whipped up by Tropical Storm Lee blew over parched, drought-stricken Texas. The fire is now the largest of more than 190 raging throughout the state.

North of Houston, fire has swept over more than 20,000 acres, Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated throughout the state, and four are confirmed dead.

Fire crews have been kept busy through a fire season that has stretched into eight months and consumed 3.6 million acres — roughly the size of Connecticut. And there is no relief in sight, as a La Nina weather pattern of hot dry winds is developing.

Being prepared

While this is a natural disaster, states must prepare to respond to dangers that can be either predictable or unforeseen. In Texas, wild fires are predictable; the scope of the 2011 fires is arguably a surprise.

The Texas Legislature cut the funding for the Forest Service from $117 million to $83 million in this year’s budget, and now finds itself unequipped for the emergency at hand.

While the response to disasters should be apolitical, it is difficult to ignore the irony of what Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told McClatchy Newspapers: “Because so many fires are burning across the state, our resources are spread pretty thin. That’s why we need the federal government to step up to the plate immediately. We need to cut through the red tape and get Texas the help we need today.”

Doesn’t Texas have a governor who has been building a presidential campaign on a philosophy that there should be less federal government, not more? And hasn’t he been bragging about how many jobs he’s created in Texas?

So why should places like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, which have been losing jobs, be expected to send their tax dollars to Texas?

Perhaps because that’s what the federal government does. It responds when disasters strike. It is responding even now in Pennsylvania, where tens of thousands of people are returning to their homes as the Susquehanna River receded from some of the highest floodwaters ever seen The flooding there and in other eastern states was also a by-product of Tropical Storm Lee. Seven people died in Pennsylvania.

Some people find it convenient to pretend that government is nothing but a burden — until they need a helping hand.

There’s an old joke about a conservative being a liberal who has just been mugged. The corollary might be that a liberal is a conservative whose home was just flooded or burned.

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