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Terrifying Words

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Burden S Lundgren
June 21, 2016


In a much-quoted 1986 speech, President Ronald Reagan stated that “…I’ve always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.” President Reagan found enough voters to agree with him not only to be elected twice, but to be constantly held up as a model for candidates of his party when they run for office. Having worked in federal administration, I can be irked and befuddled by reams of arcane requirements for filing my taxes or receiving earned benefits. It is not my intention to argue about bureaucratic complexities, but to remind us of the consequences when no one shows up and utters President Reagan’s nine most terrifying words.

Someone “from the government” is, in fact, so ever present in our lives that we seldom think about it. Someone “from the government” provides international security, public safety, roads and bridges, social insurance and myriad other protections that are so familiar as to seem invisible – until they are missing.

Where was the someone “from the government” in the Flint water crisis? Safe drinking water is something we all expect to flow from our taps and it is a clear public health responsibility to see that it does. As I write this, the Flint situation has gone on for two years with no home water delivery, no plan (or public monies) for remediation and no end in sight. Surely the people of Flint need to hear President Reagan’s nine terrifying words.

It is easy to trace government non-involvement in times of disaster by looking at a sample of historical responses to epidemics. In the summer of 1793, there was a major yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The only government response was the indecision of federal officials as to how long they should wait before returning to the city. In 1855, there was a yellow fever epidemic in Portsmouth, Virginia. The events in Portsmouth transpired in common mid-19th century fashion. First, local government collapsed as members of the council fled the town. The state of Virginia showed no interest in the epidemic and no one in Portsmouth expected them to do so. Portsmouth was in good company. In New Orleans—where both malaria and yellow fever were regular summer occurrences—it was the habit of the city council members to retreat to the mountains during epidemic seasons.

If the government didn’t show up, who did? Usually, it was volunteer organizations that addressed epidemics. That was true in Philadelphia. In mid-century Sacramento, both the Odd Fellows and Freemasons nursed the sick and buried the dead. New Orleans contracted out epidemic services to the Howard Association, a group of local businessmen who donated their work. This was no small responsibility. In the great yellow fever epidemic of 1853, the Association’s budget was $200,000. Expenditures included the opening of four new hospitals. The ad hoc volunteer association that managed the Portsmouth epidemic also had a large budget, $85,000, which came entirely in the form of private donations. They, however, did not have to build a hospital. In a most unusual move, the volunteer group successfully petitioned the federal government to allow the Portsmouth Naval Hospital to admit civilian yellow fever victims. But the federal government was not liable for the expenses involved. That responsibility was to be assumed by the town.

This is not to say that governments never aided localities in times of disaster. They would do so on a case-to-case basis. The government of Baltimore remained in town and managed the yellow fever epidemic of 1800. New York State granted special authority to New York City to pass its own health laws after a late 18th century yellow fever epidemic. Thereafter, the city government was active in managing epidemics. The federal government created a short-lived National Board of Health after a yellow fever epidemic raced up the Mississippi River in 1878. But generally, government interventions were more absent than present. City officials who left town faced no political consequences nor did state or federal officials who simply ignored disasters.

As late as the 1950s, Americans still expected very little in the way of government assistance. But the Cold War brought federal legislation to provide disaster assistance – the fear being that the next disaster might be a nuclear attack. However, the event that finally brought the federal government into the disaster relief business was non-nuclear. In 1972, Hurricane Agnes turned seven states into disaster areas. This started the process that led to the creation of the Federal Emergency Response Agency in 1979. Now known as Federal Emergency Management Agency, Americans have relied on this organization for disaster relief ever since. It was a game changer as demonstrated by the wrath visited on the city, state and federal governments for the failures after Katrina.

I have lived most of my life on the Atlantic coast. One of my earliest memories is sitting in my grandmother’s house in New York City while a hurricane roared outside. I’ve been through several others since. So far, so good. But should my house end up floating away, I will be listening intently for those nine words. The only thing more terrifying would be silence.

Author: Burden S Lundgren, MPH, Ph.D., RN practiced as a registered nurse specializing in acute and critical care. After leaving clinical practice, she worked as an analyst at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and later taught at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. She has served as a consultant to a number of nonprofit groups. Presently, she divides her time between Virginia and Pennsylvania and is working on two books – when her cocker spaniels let her. Email: [email protected].

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