When Hurricane Andrew ripped through Dade County, Florida, in August, 1992 it took three days for county officials to ascertain the extent of the damage but it took the Dade County Emergency Manager only seconds to utter a phrase that more than any other assured Bill Clinton of the Presidency: "Where in the hell is the cavalry on this one?"
She was the Democrat Kate Hale taking out after FEMA, the federal emergency management agency, whose response to the problems of destruction was found to be slow. Hale's question was seized upon by the media at a moment when President Bush could ill afford such accusations of unresponsiveness and it is being voiced again in the wake of the New Orleans catastrophe.
The Hale rhetoric spurred immediate federal action. President Bush pledged 100 percent of the Andrew cleanup costs instead of the usual 75 percent. The feds decided to make this retroactive to the damages inflicted by Hurricane Hugo in other parts of the South in 1989. The federal bill for Florida's cleanup alone finally totaled $8 billion -- a large fraction of the estimates for Hurricane Katrina. Where was the 8 billion to come from in 1992? Louisiana's Democratic Senator Bennett Johnston had a famous answer: "It will be paid for out of the deficit."
Money, of course, is not the measure of misery. Texas is now overflowing with refugees from its neighbor state and gently asks, "no more, please." As one Janice Singleton, who worked at New Orleans' "Superdome" and was robbed of everything, including her shoes, says, "They tore the dome apart. I don't want to go to no Astrodome. I've been domed almost to death." The plight of the refugees and the sight of their aimless wandering has a steady, nearly audible sub-theme. It is not the cavalry of Washington that can ride to the rescue. It is another outfit, fallen largely into disrepair and even disrepute. It is the family. It doesn't heed calls from afar because it is near, very near.
Whether FEMA has been subsumed by Homeland Security or not, there is one saving entity which every American should look to anew. It is the family, which forms community, which is the bulwark and the levee that will not break. The "single parent" as the media euphemistically refers to the umarried mother trekking toward San Antonio with a newborn in her arms has no such bulwark. Society has insisted that there is a federal cavalry out there someplace, an omnipotent, omniscient force that will arrive and save the day, well, someday. And society has come to believe in that force as a substitute for the unit that built the nation -- the family.
As the toll and the recriminations grow in Louisiana it behooves the nation to repair to the family, to revivify this unit. No matter where Americans may live there lurks always the possibility of calamity, natural or manmade. No family should be without the means to communicate with certainty, to defend with force if need be, to subsist on nutrients put by, to move to plateaus of safety. To have a plan.
Sure, FEMA has a job. Police have a job. The National Guard has a job. Active duty troops have a job. The Red Cross, Salvation Army, and two dozen other charitable outfits have a job. May they all perform their works well.
But the family. It is not a job to the family. It is an act of love. And the greatest of these is -- well, you know very well.
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