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Wildfire relief efficient, effective: so what gives?

It’s been a devastating week in Southern California. The Santa Ana winds, blowing dry, hot desert air, have fed the fifteen wildfires ranging from north of Los Angeles all the way to the Mexican border. Over 1,500 homes have been destroyed, and damage is conservatively estimated to total over $1 billion. Yet all week, the more personal reports issuing from the area have been generally positive. The thousands of “refugees” at Qualcomm Stadium outside San Diego have beamed enthusiastically at the abundance of food, water and all other necessities for the duration of their stay. Instant Home Insurance Quotes Photo courtesy of NASA Governor Schwarzenegger was so candid as to boast of the abundance of toilet paper that officials had worked hard to make available. Over 90 planes were on standby, including six on special loan from the federal government, waiting through the early week for the winds to die down to navigable speeds. It’s almost as if the government and emergency response teams, from the local to the state to the national level, were determined to avoid the catastrophe of a second Katrina. Apparently, the disastrous relief efforts of 2005 are still fresh in our minds. By far, the vast majority of rescuers and workers in Southern California now are working to help people, just like the majority of rescuers and workers in New Orleans two years ago. The biggest difference overall is a matter of organization. There may be differences besides organization, however, that are making this catastrophe a little less catastrophic than the relief disaster two years ago. Consider the demographic differences between New Orleans and Los Angeles—not the racial differences, the economic differences. People who live in Malibu are rich. Does this mean rescuers will be more willing to help them? Of course not. But can money get things done? Of course it can. And again, in terms of most of the relief efforts underway, differences in demographics have nothing to do with it. But perhaps there are a few anti-fire efforts you didn’t know about. AIG, which is the biggest insurance company in the country, has a special division called the AIG Private Client Group, which tailors its service to individuals with especially high net worth. The president of this division, Charles Williamson, appeared on an ABC special on Tuesday, October 23, to showcase some of the efforts of the private sector. On some of the larger houses in the area, workers are soaking the houses’ roofs with high-powered flame-retardant spray. “If we save a $3 million house,” said Williamson, “that’s $3 million more we can spend [elsewhere].” Those homeowners who are fortunate enough to enlist the services of the AIG Private Client Group, of course, have large expensive, houses. An insurance company, moreover, will be more than happy to take a few preventative measures to avoid or lessen the risk of forking over such a large chunk of change. The biggest reason for success in the relief efforts in California is certainly superior organization, more efficient mobilization, greater resources, and less damage. But there are certainly more special workers in HAZMAT suits working in California now than there were building levees around mansions in New Orleans. Then again, there aren’t a whole lot of mansions in the Ninth Ward.

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