Opinion: Emergencies bring out best, worst

October 31, 2012


Like millions of Americans I have been watching the progress of Superstorm Sandy for the past few days out of concern for those people in the path of the storm and, perhaps, out of a bit of morbid curiosity. As I have watched I have been particularly interested to see how state and local authorities, as well as the federal government, have been preparing to deal with the storm.

As many people remember from Hurricane Katrina, state and local governments have often done far better than FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which deals with damaging storms. So far it seems as though everybody, from county and city officials all the way to regional FEMA officials, has been doing a decent job. I have been particularly impressed by Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City. I thought that their responses to the storm and their announcements to the public were well done.

As I write this column it is 7:30 on Tuesday morning. Sandy has already done a great deal of damage. The news reports that more than 16,000,000 people in the Northeastern United States are without electricity and that property damage, particularly in coastal regions, has been massive. The good news is that, as of now, only 16 deaths have been reported. Certainly, this is due, in part, to the meteorologists who forecast the path of the storm, the government officials who ordered politically difficult evacuations of areas in the most danger of flooding, and the police, firefighters and emergency workers who put their own lives at risk to ensure that people in danger were rescued.

I have also been impressed by the many folks from other states, including Kansas, who have rushed to the Northeast to help with rescue and reconstruction efforts. As we learned during 9/11, there are many heroes living among us.

At the same time, I have been saddened by those individuals in threatened areas who were ordered to evacuate and who refused to do so. I was particularly struck by the videos coming out of New York City last night that showed people walking in flooded streets and driving cars through flooded areas despite Mayor Bloomberg’s order to evacuate.

Regular readers of this column will know that I am a strong believer in individual rights and am skeptical of government intrusion in private matters. But, in an emergency, every individual has an obligation to follow evacuation orders. It’s not simply a matter of private decision as to whether a person is willing to risk injury or death by staying in place. When someone refuses to evacuate, that puts every police officer, firefighter and emergency worker at risk as well because those are the folks who will have to go out and rescue the individuals who voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way. In my opinion, such selfish behavior is unacceptable. Even worse are those people who stay behind and then deliberately go outside and drive, thereby risking that their cars will be stranded and actually block emergency vehicles from reaching those who need to be rescued.

Emergencies and natural disasters bring out the best in people and the worst in people. One can only hope that those who acted selfishly have not harmed those who risked their own lives to save others.

— Mike Hoeflich, a distinguished professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


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