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August 19, 2011

A Seminal Failure of Government: Betting on the Come with Public Safety

Friday August 20, it rained in Pittsburgh and three four people died. (updated) From the Post-Gazette:
A woman and two children were killed and an elderly woman was missing Friday night after a flash flood -- with rushing water 9 feet deep in some places -- swept over Washington Boulevard in Highland Park/Lincoln-Lemington during rush hour.
This sort of thing isn't supposed to happen here - sure, folks in Mumbai die when it rains, but not here in the Good Old Homeland. It's just an Act Of God, force majuere, nothing to see here, move on, our sympathy to the families, update your Facebook, Here we go Steelers, here we go.

Is it really an Act of God? The same thing happened at the same location in July.

This is not three four people who got killed while boating (a risky activity subject to the forces of nature). This is not three four people who got killed while hiking through the wilderness. This is three four people, citizens, taxpayers, who drowned in rain on a main public street during Friday rush hour.

There's a Department of Public Works that is supposed to design, build, and fix drainage systems. There's a Department of Public Safety that is supposed to protect the populace. There's annual Office of Emergency Management; they are supposed to ensure readiness for infrequent events. There are elected officials (Mayor Luke Ravenstahl) who are accountable to the voters for the performance of the city departments (DPW, Safety) under their authority.

If all those agencies and officials were focused on guaranteeing citizen's lives - if they were ensuring that the public would be safe even in 100-year events - instead of simply betting on the come and being comfortable that we're probably going to be okay most of the time, then they'd close those few streets when it was raining, until such time as the drainage was improved. Simple solution.

It can't be too difficult to close a street. They seem to be able to do it whenever a VIP or a corporation wants it closed, regardless of the impact. Ensuring public safety by closing the street when it rains would call attention to their shortcomings and priorities, so instead they leave the people to take their chances. It's a reverse lottery, run by the government. Turns out you can gamble on both sides of the river. Oops, you won - sucks to be you.

The city knows that flooding is likely at that location in heavy rain, the decision makers haven't taken any action to improve the situation, and so the constraints of budgets and political desire abandon people in favor of higher priorities.

Let's just acknowledge that the City's priority has been filming a movie and not ensuring the safety of citizens. By the way, who investigates the liability for these deaths? Couldn't be somebody who also works for the Mayor, could it? And where was Luke at 5pm on Friday?

Shifting into meta, let's also anticipate that the upcoming national austerity, reduced oversight and de-regulation, and dogmatic beast-starving are going to produce a lot more of these unnecessary tragedies.


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