• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Hurricane Lesson: Government Works

Smooth sailing through a bad storm.

October 11, 2016



My wife and I and our two dogs had to evacuate the Charleston area for Hurricane Matthew. This was our first evacuation since moving to the region in 2011, and the headline of the experience is that it was entirely uneventful.

We left Thursday, the day after Governor Nikki Haley ordered an evacuation and the eastbound lanes of Interstate 26 out of the city were turned westbound. Prior to the reversal, traffic was heavy, but afterwards it was smooth sailing. We made it to our temporary home in Columbia in under two hours.

The return was similarly smooth. We took a few back roads to avoid a couple bottlenecks, but the house was intact and power on when we arrived home.

Both before we left and during our temporary exile, my wife remarked how good it all made her feel, not the hurricane, but our governmental and civic response to the hurricane. In a time where it can feel like the country is being ripped apart, it’s nice to see us coming together.

We’d made a habit of watching each of Gov. Haley’s multi-times a day briefings, where she and other government officials and workers would outline the planned response, informing the public about everything that was being done.

It was an example of government at its best, assessing and fulfilling the needs of citizens.

There’s a certain irony to this as, coming from the libertarian wing of the Republican party, Gov. Haley never met a government program she actually liked. But during the storm she presided over a highly coordinated, comprehensive response that required the cooperation of many different governmental agencies at the state, county, and municipal level. The reversing of I-26 all by itself was a logistical marvel.

Perhaps there’s a libertarian argument for the success of this governmental response, that government works best when it sticks to its core functions, and public safety and disaster response is a pretty core function. It’s when we let government meddle with things best left to markets when we get in trouble.

That particular argument aside, it seems to me that one of the reasons government worked so well in this case is because everyone shared the same set of values. We agreed on what government was supposed to be doing.

The goal was to prevent loss of life, and do it in a “better safe than sorry” manner. No one was arguing about how best to do it, or who should be in charge. There was a clear structure of decision-making authority, with individuals being empowered to carry out their portion of the mission.

Everyone, regardless of means or circumstance was accommodated. Don’t have friends in another city or the money for a hotel room? Shelters were available. No car? Pickup points for bus transport to a shelter or out of town were standing by.

Maybe the evacuation order was a little early (Wednesday), but the early declaration left people plenty of time to plan. It likely cost some local businesses (particularly restaurants) some money, but overall, the experience reinforced that government works and we need it.

When it comes to education, it’s become an article of faith among many that government doesn’t work, that market-based competition is the best route to excellence. Even our socialist President Obama named his signature education initiative the “Race to the Top.”

But where no child is supposed to be left behind, competition causes some problems. In a best case scenario, K-12 charter schools create lifeboats for some children, while allowing others to drift in the sea. In the worst case, they’re profit-skimming enterprises only marginally engaged with student well-being.

Public higher ed institutions are forced to compete for “prestige,” in order to seem worthy of monetary support, but all that competing often drains resources away from the core functions of education. We’ve entered a Lake Woebegone reality, only we better be well above average.

Like public safety, I have to believe that providing access to education is a valid function of government is worthy public support, and should be tasked to the experts to execute the plan.

The last 30 plus years of privatization in education hasn’t seemed to work all that well for the most vulnerable populations. We’ve been running around in circles, chasing the next fad, hoping some free market savior is going to solve the problem of learning.

There’s a lot of things we need to do if we’re going to put public higher education back on sound footing, but maybe the first step is to decide what the hell these places are for.

Do we exist merely to convey credentials? Or are we supposed to educate the “whole person?”

Or maybe we should fulfill the vision of a recent editorial in the Daily Illini, the student paper of the University of Illinois, which argues that students should get less homework so they can spend more time outside of class doing jobs and internships that allow them to develop the experiences and soft skills that will land them jobs that will help graduates pay off their student loans? Are we places that value access or should we be striving for “elite” status?

Obviously, these questions get at the very fundamentals of the meaning of education. For me, what students study (as long as they study something) means less than how they go about doing it. I suppose this puts me in the college is for “learning how to learn,” camp.

But as evidenced by the Daily Illini editorial, this may not be a good fit with today’s world.

What I am confident in is that our current trajectory is not sustainable. We’ve put our public institutions in a state of perpetual precarity, where even small upsets result in cuts to core educational services.

There was a time where we agreed that a college education shouldn’t impose an undue financial burden on students. That time wasn’t that long ago. I went to college at the tail end of it, and I’m not so old.

I believe government has a role in achieving this goal.

Or maybe that time has passed and we need to agree on a different path for the next generation, and those University of Illinois students are on to something. We should just accept that for many a college degree will come coupled with significant debt.

Deep down, I don’t think it’s too late. I think we’re capable of understanding the public good.

As my wife and I returned home Sunday afternoon, we drove slowly through our neighborhood, and barely 12 hours after the storm had passed, piles of debris were stacked neatly up and down the street.

Neighbors had been working together to clear the way for others’ return.




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