A Failed Response: The Cost of Devaluing Government
By Eric K. Ward
I won’t lie. It’s bad. Very bad. Off-the-charts hazardous smoke not likely to dissipate for at least a week, despite the predicted rains. These photos were taken 12 hours apart. The right photo is the more recent one.
For us in Portland proper, danger from fire isn’t the issue for now; smoke is. I can’t even begin to describe just how hazardous it is outside. Not only are the city’s vulnerable populations in serious jeopardy, but so are the displaced rural populations being welcomed into sanctuary here.
Disappointingly, in the midst of this historic natural disaster, state infrastructure is showing itself to be completely inadequate. It’s no longer an issue of bad governance; the deeper issue is depleted resources.
Years of underfunding from the federal government and inequitable systems of tax and revenue didn’t cause the disaster — but the decades-old drive to shrink government until it can be “drowned in the bathtub” has ensured a failed response. (Sound familiar? The coronavirus has revealed the same weaknesses and inequities.) The promise that private entities would prove more responsive than government has revealed itself to be another lie.
Television continues to run sports and entertainment programming rather than deliver Oregonians real time information and advice. The news is full of false happy stories about wind shifts and rain, instead of preparing us to care about what will happen when smoke leaves urban areas to spread to rural communities and the coming rains bring lightning and the guarantee of more fires.
Hotels and motels refuse to open their empty rooms and have left the displaced, homeless, the elderly and those with severe health issues to wait out toxic smoke in rest stops, the convention center, and tents under overpasses.
People seeking shelter or venturing out to help their neighbors are faced with armed vigilantes roaming communities without any worry of law enforcement intervention, and indeed sometimes with the assistance of law enforcement itself.
If government has stumbled in this critical moment, the private sector has proved itself to be uncaring. It will take years to recover from this disaster. I hope that when we do, we will also have reconstructed the systems that failed to provide Oregonians with the dignity and support they so deserve.
We here in Oregon are not exceptional. We think of Puerto Rico, Texas, Iowa, Louisiana, California, Washington and so many others in this moment. We think of neighbors helping neighbors to safety, BLM protesters aiding fire evacuees, and all the other acts of human decency on display in every area hit by climate disaster. It’s time for our government and our business sectors to put in the same effort, to show the same decency. As we rebuild, let’s also commit to rebuilding our insistence on responsive government.
Eric K. Ward is a Senior Fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Race Forward, and Executive Director of Western States Center.