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September 09, 2005

"The Lessons of Hurricane Katrina"

We’ve all been awe-struck in recent days watching the coverage of the rescue efforts in the South following hurricane Katrina. But I think there are some important lessons to learn -- and questions we must answer -- all be them at the expense of those tragic victims.

1) Transportation Means Survival: The difference between those who lived and died in New Orleans was based on access to transportation. When told to evacuate, those with cars did. Those without were stranded. The lack of public transportation along the Gulf Coast left the “disadvantaged” as just that… dis-advantaged, and maybe dead.

I wonder why every available rail car, bus, plane and helicopter wasn’t called into service to remove people from Katrina’s path. Worse yet, I wonder how those living along the Connecticut coast would evacuate if a category four storm were threatening us. Join the crawl on I-95? Take Metro-North? Or hunker down at a local mall.

2) Our Classless Society Isn’t: The victims of Katrina aren’t characterized as much by race as by economic class. Access to housing away from the flood plain and access to private transportation both cost money. You don’t have to be Black to be poor. But a week after rescue efforts began, with hundreds of mostly black bodies still floating, uncollected let alone unburied, one wonders if it’s not also a matter of race.

During an NBC fund-raising telethon for hurricane victims, black rap artist Kanye West said “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” (only to have those comments censored by the network for its West-Coast feed). The President’s mother, Barbara, on touring the refugee camps in Houston commented that, given the squalor of their former New Orleans homes, these victims of Katrina were actually better off than before. She added “it’s kind of scary that they might all want to stay in Texas”.

Where would Connecticut’s refugees flee after an evacuation? Gold coasters perhaps would drive their SUV’s up to familiar ski country in New England. But where would the Hispanic, Haitian and Black populations of Stamford, Norwalk and Bridgeport flee… and would they also be made to feel like so many dust bowl Oakies?

3) Our Government Is Incompetent: Four years after 9/11 we’ve seen once again that our government can’t do a damn thing to protect its citizens. One might excuse a surprise terrorist attack, but a long anticipated, well-scenarioed hurricane? Not a chance.

As Katrina hit, George Bush was enjoying week five (!!!) of his summer vacation at his ranch, while his political appointee cronies at FEMA fiddled as New Orleans burned and flooded.

Seventy-five percent of FEMA’s budget is spent on terrorism, even though acts of nature present the real danger to most Americans. Gobbled up into the Homeland Security Agency, FEMA has lost all clout, competence and most of its budget.

We have already spent almost $200 billion fighting in Iraq. For what? And what will the final cost be for reconstruction of the South? And will those billions be spent on no-bid contracts for Halliburton?

I’m not ashamed to “play the blame game”. But my comments are not about partisan politics. There’s plenty of blame, and responsibility, to go around for all the pol’s at all levels of government. Because, if we don’t address these horrendous mistakes and answer these tough questions, aren’t we likely to also fall victim to a Katrina-style disaster?

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can read a full archive of his columns at http://talkingtransportation.blogspot.com/ .

September 03, 2005

Truck Safety, Gas Prices and Terrorism

“Follow-Ups: Trucks, Gas & Security”

Many thanks to those of you who’ve written or replied to my recent columns. It’s time to catch up on some outstanding issues:

TRUCKS: Many of you took exception to my tongue-in-cheek “Let’s Blame The Trucks” (http://talkingtransportation.blogspot.com/2005/02/lets-blame-trucks.html) column of a few weeks back, where I noted that our traffic woes aren’t due to trucks, but to “SOV’s”… single occupancy vehicles. That said, the recent fiery dump-truck crash in Avon CT, which killed four and left 20 vehicles ruined, speaks to the fact that truck safety needs more attention.

Why then are the truck inspection stations in Greenwich and Danbury closed more often than they’re opened? Why aren’t they open 24 / 7 and using the readily available EZ-Pass style technology that would let already-inspected trucks to sail past, leaving more time and staff to scrutinize the others?

The answer is legislative opposition, much of it led by Greenwich pol’s who don’t want trucks befouling their pristine air, idling at the inspection site so near their homes. This is absurd. Their NIMBYism denies the rest of us on I-95 and I-84 the knowledge that our drives will be safer because dangerous rigs will be off the road.

GAS PRICES: My column “Gasoline Is Too Cheap” (http://talkingtransportation.blogspot.com/2005/04/gasoline-is-too-cheap.html) was also met with jeers… and a few cheers. Since its writing, prices have soared even higher.

But have you ever wondered why gas prices in Darien and New Canaan are always so much higher than in Norwalk and Bridgeport? Why, when you drive up the Merritt Parkway do prices at service areas vary 5 to 10 cents per gallon from station to station, just miles apart? Blame it on “zone pricing”, a practice condoned by the FTC that lets oil companies charge higher prices to dealers in rich neighborhoods.

Connecticut has 52 different price zones, with the rich “paying through the hose” for the same fuel less-affluent drivers can get for much less. This leaves price conscious motorists roaming the roads in tough neighborhoods looking for affordable fuel for their SUV’s, and wasting a lot of time and money in the process with unnecessary driving.

Consumer watchdogs and Attorney General Blumenthal have been seeking reforms of zone pricing for years, so far to no avail. What can you do? Complain to your elected officials. Look at their voting records and hold them accountable for their inaction on this issue.

WHAT SECURITY? It’s been weeks since the terror attacks on London and we’ve all gone back to our complacent commuting patterns. The national terror alert has been lowered, and we assume all’s well. (See http://talkingtransportation.blogspot.com/2005/07/terror-on-tracks.html)

After the subway bombings, while New York City officials instituted random bag checks on subways and commuter trains, Governor Rell did not. Instead, she kept State Police riding the trains to give commuters the “feeling” of safety where none exists. As I wrote in July in “Terror On The Tracks”, uniformed cops on Metro-North trains offer no deterrence to would-be terrorists… but random bag checks would.

There will be more terrorist acts, again possibly targeted to mass transit. But when will we learn that they might be prevented with some real security, not just lip-service and window-dressing by PR-sensitive politicians?
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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can read a full archive of his columns at http://talkingtransportation.blogspot.com/ .