Philip’s post on the problems wrought by the recent blizzard raises an interesting question regarding resilience: how big does an event have to be for people to not expect to be saved by government and instead start relying on themselves?
George Packer of the New Yorker tackles this topic with his personal description of the reaction of some New Yorkers to the blizzard:
Twenty inches of snow isn’t a 7.5 earthquake or Category 4 hurricane. Unless it’s life-threatening, an emergency rarely lifts human beings above themselves. A snowstorm like this is bad enough to make people parochial and aggrieved, but not disastrous enough to make them generous and heroic. The stories of people trapped on subway trains all night, of hundreds of 911 calls going unanswered for hours, remained abstract, because we were in no actual danger. And so, instead, it seemed as if our block was being singled out for idiocy and neglect. The scene on the street brought my neighbors and me into a fraternity of usefulness and scorn: we locals did one another little favors—here’s some salt, thanks for shoveling my walk—and remarked on the folly of outsiders insisting on driving a car through such snow. The circle of inclusion was now the neighborhood—more narrowly, the block—but this bond wasn’t strong enough to prompt one of us to put an orange cone of warning at the bottom of the street, let alone to organize all of us into teams that could shovel out the whole block. Urban solidarity had a limit, and some quaint notion of deserving city services kept us waiting passively on the silent street for the plow that, by midday Tuesday, still hadn’t shown up.
When describing the earliest moments following a disaster, emergency managers never miss an opportunity to remind the public that there may be a period where they have to rely on themselves. This is the theory behind having a plan and keeping several days of food and water, among other supplies. Elected officials, however, find it more difficult to tell the public that they may not be there for them immediately following an event (and in the case of a certain New Jersey governor, that is literally true…). Added to the mix are those voices that insist that officials shouldn’t plan for true catastrophes but instead focus on the most likely threats. This line of thinking supports the notion that the government should be prepared to handle common events, and the average citizen as taxpayer should expect immediate results.
Perhaps instead we should broaden our conception of even non-catastrophic events. Describing the efforts of a moving crew to dig themselves a path out of his block, Packer links expectations held by citizen of government and government of citizen:
They had plowed our street with shovels. Outsiders on the clock, they had done the city’s work—our work.
(h/t to Conor Friedersdorf at Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish)