What Happened When Sandy Hit Russia
Late Moscow time last Monday, I sat eyes glued to NY1’s live-streaming coverage of Hurricane Sandy battering down the coast. Scanning past the mayor’s “mesmerizing” sidekick, the Russianist in me was struck by something entirely different about Mayor Bloomberg’s speech: the level of public accountability.
Over 400,000 New Yorkers live in public housing, a vast number in perilous flood zones. As Sandy neared, an army of civil servants descended on the mazes of apartments, pleading with residents to evacuate. To quote the mayor hours before the storm broke:
We placed flyers in all 26 of the affected developments starting last Friday. . . We started knocking on doors of residents in the affected developments Friday and Saturday . . . We made phone calls to apartments in every development. If we couldn’t reach people, we put flyers under their doors.
Sunday, police officers were at the developments telling people through loudspeakers to evacuate. We provided school buses to transport people to shelters . . . We’re especially going to residents we know are on respirators, or other life-saving equipment dependent on electricity, and telling them to leave and helping them do so.
I’m sure at this point all you soda-lovers and out-of-town marathoners are shaking your heads asking: why venerate the mayor-emperor now? Particularly when thousands remain stranded.
Because in Russia and other post-Soviet countries, this kind of public accountability, one might even say dedication, to citizens is much, much weaker. The past two decades have witnessed a tragic number of natural and manmade disasters, resulting in massive losses of human life and economic welfare. Mine disasters, ship sinkings, countless airline mishaps and crashes, devastating wildfires. But unlike the U.S. where FEMA gets overhauled following the ineptitude of “Brownie,” Russian authorities continue to disappoint their constituents.
Take the recent parallel this past summer in the southern Russian city of Krymsk, population: 58,000. Days of torrential rains caused flash-flooding, taking the lives of over 150 people and leaving thousands more homeless. As in the case of Sandy, the region’s governor had some advance notice to take action and order evacuations. Instead of doing so, this is what he said several days after the disaster:
[quote]Official information that severe flooding would result from the river overflows didn’t come in until 10pm. The surge began at 1am and continued until 3, you know this better than I do. What do you think dear citizens, that between 10pm and 1am we could have warned you individually? With what resources? And even if we had, would you really have just taken off and left your homes?[/quote]
Not a single person was evacuated. It’s true that there was less warning than U.S. officials had had with Sandy, but the fact that absolutely no effort was taken is striking.
The clean-up fared just as badly. In a country not known for its transparency, rumors flew about the local authorities having intentionally opened a local reservoir in order to save a key port from submerging; in the eyes of many, these have not been completely quashed. Scores of national volunteers who spontaneously (and surprisingly) rushed in to help found themselves greeted harshly by local officials suspicious of their intentions and their political leanings. Soon, a law that would force volunteers to register with the government and sign official contracts before beginning their work—an uncomfortable scenario for those fearful of increased state control—was drafted.
Put electoral politics aside a minute. For all its flaws (which are numerous), the U.S. government can still step up when needed to provide essential services for its citizens. Six years ago we experienced a catastrophic failure in state capacity in Katrina and the government reacted by reforming FEMA. Early reports about the level of bipartisan coordination between federal, state, and city governments in responding to the hurricane have been encouraging. The biggest challenge now is to prevent the waste and fraud so endemic to Katrina’s clean-up, especially at a time when our nation’s pocketbook is under significantly more duress.
[pullquote_right]In our hysteria over the national debt we easily forget the irreplaceable role that government plays in our lives.[/pullquote_right]
I don’t make the cross-national comparison here in order to bash Russian officials. Instead, I want to point out that in our hysteria over the national debt we easily forget the irreplaceable role that government plays in our lives. Too often, we take for granted the competitive elections, free media, and the reform measures that frequently follow our failures and help to keep our agencies honest. The idea that the Russian equivalents of Bloomberg, Booker, Cuomo, and Christie would give press conference after press conference during a national disaster is nearly inconceivable.
Sometimes, we need to put the failures of our bureaucracy into a wider perspective, particularly as we so fervently debate what agencies to gut, which public access channels to terminate, and how the private sector might substitute for previous state functions. We simply can’t throw the state out with the floodwater.