Give Me That Old Time Government Concern

by Last Night in Little Rock

The biggest story of 2005 on CNN was Katrina and its aftermath, and this blog, as all the others, also exploded with stories about the government's gross mismanagement. "Brownie, you've done a heck of a job" became the catch-phrase for governmental cluelessness.

April 18th is the Centennial of the Great San Francisco Earthquake, and I've started reading up on it. Over the holidays, I read A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 by Simon Winchester. This was my first installment on the subject.

What shocked me was that the government's response in 1906 was immediate and decisive, unlike 2005.

According to Winchester, only a trans-Pacific and two military telegraph lines survived. What telephone service there was was knocked out. In fact, two scientists were on the telephone with each other in California when the earthquake struck. 5:13 a.m. PT, Wednesday, April 18, 1906.

Via the military telegraph lines, Washington was told, and Congress met the next day to appropriate funds to help. The military all around San Francisco was immediately called into action by the local second in command in less than two hours (his boss was out of town) to help find survivors, restore order, and quell the fires that had started near the waterfront and were going to burn half the city down. The fires burned for three days. The military actually blew buildings up to create firebreaks. Indeed, all the military forces were turned over to the city to do what was needed, and they worked hand in hand. Nobody sat there wondering what political benefit could be derived or what friend of the government could benefit from a contract to rebuild.

A train full of supplies came from LA and arrived that night, 18 hours after the earthquake. A train full. Not five days later.

A wire transfer the day before from San Francisco for relief of an Italian natural disaster was creatively recaptured for use of the funds in San Francisco.

Winchester finished this book right after the December 26, 2004 tsunamis because references to that earthquake are added in as footnotes and probable new text. It was clearly either on the shelves or in manufacturing when Katrina struck.

The immediacy and resolve of the government's response in 1906 was striking, and it only comprises two pages of Winchester's book. What is more stiking is that 99 1/2 years before Katrina, the government was more sensitive to responding to a natural disaster for fundamental humanitarian reasons as opposed to the current administration that was always looking for the political angles before it would do a thing. And they didn't have CNN, MSNBC, and Faux News showing the pictures. They had no pictures for weeks.

They had one telegraph report, confirmed by seismographs all over North America, and they immediately got on it.

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    Re: Give Me That Old Time Government Concern (none / 0) (#1)
    by Dadler on Sun Jan 01, 2006 at 09:03:12 AM EST
    From the December's HARPER'S INDEX: Number of Cuba's fourteen provinces that were directly hit by a Category 4 hurricane in July: 12 Number of people that the Cuban government successfully evacuated to safety: 1,535,000

    Re: Give Me That Old Time Government Concern (none / 0) (#2)
    by Steven Sanderson on Sun Jan 01, 2006 at 11:42:25 AM EST
    Conservatives have called long and loudly for running government like a business. The differences in the response between the 1906 SF quake and the 2005 Katrina storm demonstrate the fact that government serves to protect and assist the collective best interests of the people, that business only serves the interests of the self-styled upper crust, and that conservatives can never be trusted to serve the best interests of we the people.

    Re: Give Me That Old Time Government Concern (none / 0) (#3)
    by chemoelectric on Sun Jan 01, 2006 at 06:24:06 PM EST
    Theodore Roosevelt was not, at core, a Nazi-like person. During Katrina, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were heading the government.

    Re: Give Me That Old Time Government Concern (none / 0) (#4)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sun Jan 01, 2006 at 09:26:43 PM EST
    I'd say that the big difference between the military response in 1906 and in 2005 is that, in 1906, it wasn't illegal for the Army to operate inside US borders without all sorts of permissions and oversight from the government.

    Re: Give Me That Old Time Government Concern (none / 0) (#5)
    by scarshapedstar on Mon Jan 02, 2006 at 08:14:29 AM EST
    Oh, yeah, Mike. That's what it was all about. If it weren't for posse comitatus everything would have magically fallen into place. Jesus.

    Re: Give Me That Old Time Government Concern (none / 0) (#6)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Mon Jan 02, 2006 at 08:33:19 AM EST
    Michael Heinz: good theory, but dates don't support. Posse Comitatus Act passed in 1878, at the end of post-Civil War reconstruction. See, Wikipedia entry here.

    Re: Give Me That Old Time Government Concern (none / 0) (#7)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Mon Jan 02, 2006 at 09:47:09 AM EST
    Scar and jackl: I read michael's point as some one who took part in the military response. We could not make a move down there with out several meetings to let every level of gov't (from city managers up to governors and congressional reps) know what was going on. It tied up days. Back in 1906 it was some military officer telling the troops to go and not even worrying about telling any of the mayors or governors what they were doing. I am sure, if we could have done that for Katrina, aid would have been flowing much faster.

    Re: Give Me That Old Time Government Concern (none / 0) (#8)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Mon Jan 02, 2006 at 11:53:24 AM EST
    jackl, There's more than just the original posse comitatus involved; for example, the USAF, Navy and Marines weren't covered by P.C. until 1956. In any case, my personal understanding (i.e., take this with a grain of salt) is that after WWII, and especially after incidents like Kent State, the deployment of troops within states has been steadily more and more regulated - creating the situation where Bush felt he couldn't send in troops and Blanco didn't know how to ask for them.