We have everything we need to battle Irene

August 26, 2011

Hurricane Irene, an enormous storm of unimaginable power, is bearing down on the east coast. Although there could be loss of life and substantial property devastation, America has more than enough resources to meet her and survive mostly intact. Unlike third-world countries we have the people, equipment and money in reserve to clean up. But it maybe the human locusts that follow in her wake that are hardest to battle against.

Irene is expected to make landfall in North Carolina, but it is the northeastern states that have made extraordinary efforts to evacuate the population and shut down public transportation systems. The corridor stretching from New Haven, CT to Atlantic City, NJ is one of the most densely populated areas in America; 55 million people are currently preparing for this large natural disaster.

Cities, counties, states and utility companies are on standby. Funds have been reserved to respond to emergencies and the federal government has a large department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, ready to provide local assistance. The public sector is ready to go.

But in the aftermath of disasters, bad things happen and authorities are often not around to help out. I’m sure that we will hear stories of looting and fraud following the hurricane — it generally happens after every natural disaster. The AP reported the following after tornadoes swept through Birmingham, Alabama in April:

Looters have carried off televisions, power tools and prescription pills. Elsewhere, unscrupulous businesses are charging double for a tank of gas or jacking up the cost of a hotel room. Authorities also warn of construction workers who leave with the cash before opening their tool kit and the danger that identities could be stolen off wind-blown documents.

Though the region has seen similar scams after hurricanes and the Gulf oil spill, the speed of flimflam men this time around has surprised authorities and survivors.

“We have received a surprising amount of calls,” said Noel Barnes, consumer protection chief for the Alabama attorney general’s office. “We’re not going to allow people to further victimize our citizens.”

Some residents are packing firearms to scare off the lowlifes. In Pleasant Grove, Ala., Mike Capps was guarding his parents’ house over the weekend with an M-1 carbine rifle.

The public sector doesn’t have the resources to fight back against a wave of individual crimes after the disaster. It’s up to private citizens to be alert and cooperative with their neighbors to try and repress the actions of criminals. The best way to work collectively is to know your neighbors, have their cell phone numbers and know who should be in the neighborhood. An effective technique used in Cairo in the chaos of their Arab Spring was having groups of men stop and identify passengers in cars trying to enter a neighborhood after night fall. If you didn’t live there, you were not allowed in.

The elderly are a special part of the population which need help before and after a disaster. If you know of elderly neighbors on their own, you might want to drop in and make sure they have the things they need or help make arrangements for them to be transported to a shelter.

Disasters are difficult but usually the collective action of the people, as well as the public and private sectors, quickly rallies to clean up and restore. We have the resources we need to battle Irene if everyone reports for duty and looks after those around them. This is the true wealth of America: a strong community facing difficult conditions and surviving intact.


Index of State and Local Consumer Agencies

Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection

Delaware Consumer Protection Unit of the Department of Justice

New Jersey State Office of Consumer Protection

New York City Department of Consumer Affairs

New York State Division of Consumer Protection

North Carolina Attorney General

Image courtesy ofCooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS), University of Wisconsin – Madison, USA

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