info 09.14.05

A Bilandic Moment

A major American city. A powerful act of nature. A dithering response. Relief to white Americans before relief to black Americans. A complete disconnect between what officials were saying and what people were seeing.

Welcome to Chicago, 1979.

Early in that year, over 20 inches of snow fell atop 10 or so inches that remained from a previous storm. Suddenly, the "city that works" ground to a halt. Then-Mayor Bilandic claimed side streets were clear when they clearly were not. The El bypassed some black neighborhoods while white neighborhoods had full service. It was a mess.

What has happened along the Gulf Coast is obviously multiple orders of magnitude greater than what happened to Chicago in 1979. But there was a straight-line consequence to such government bungling then: Chicagoans voted for maverick Jane Byrne three months later in the mayoral primary and Bilandic was out.

Chicagoans thought they were restoring managerial competence when they fired Bilandic (whether that turned out to be the case is arguable). Accountability being anathema to our current crop of politicos on both sides of the aisle (it's the true third-rail of politics), it leaves us yearning to hear an elected official openly and honestly shoulder blame, fall honorably on their sword, instead of bobbing and weaving and leaving us sickened and angry. How pleasant it would be to have the sense, as Chicagoans did in 1979, that throwing the bums out was all that was needed to restore the city to itself.

New Yorkers, though, may have a nagging sense that there's more to the story here. We can hope we're in the Can't-Do Decade and that competency is just around the corner. Perhaps here in the five boroughs, the police, firefighters, and city officials are truly better prepared to handle a catastrophe than they were before September 11th. But if New Orleans has taught us anything, it is that a key component of a crisis response is how citizens behave. And part of that is how much preparation and information we have.

We need to stop referring to the 'unthinkable' because everything is assuredly now on the table. Given the unpredictability of an attack, some things will have to occur on the fly. But is there nothing more New Yorkers can do to make sensible preparations? Where should we turn for reliable information? What communication systems are most likely to remain working? If there is a chemical attack, what steps should we take? If the city needed to be evacuated quickly, would it make sense to head to the rivers — do officials have evacuation plans beyond bridges and tunnels? Could a specific emergency ringtone be programmed to ring on landline phones alerting us to an emergency? Something, anything?

No amount of preparation will ever fit every emergency permutation. New Orleans knew, though, that a category four or five could wreak havoc on their city and it still caught them by surprise. New York knows that another terrorist attack on the city falls somewhere on the possible/likely/inevitable continuum. We look to the city, state, and federal government for guidance in a crisis and we know that sometimes, in Chicago, in New Orleans, government may not do its job.

Yet lives could be saved with some forethought, by sharing information before a crisis is upon us. The mayor and city official need to consider New Yorkers partners in a crisis, but we need to know what our roles might be. It's a discussion we should be having now.

Katrina Relief
Artists, musicians, and poets from New York and New Orleans will be performing on October 1, 1-4pm, at St. Mark's Church, with 100% of proceeds going to the 21st Century Foundation's Katrina Recovery Fund. Suggested donation is $20. Toni Morrison, Cecil Taylor, Anne Waldman, and many others will perform. More info.

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