Monday, September 12, 2005

 

Katrina...my two cents.

I haven't posted much lately and I've been deliberately avoiding posting about Katrina because it is being addressed so widely and because I know I'm going to subject myself to attack if I comment, but nonetheless after listening to NPR for a sizeable portion of the weekend I decided that I would make a few points that I haven't heard mentioned much and point to a couple of articles as well.

The first point I want to make is that while I don't disagree that things were handled poorly on all levels, including the Federal level, I am still a little suprised by the level of disbelief and outrage. I took a geography class my freshman year of college where we discussed New Orleans. This was back during the Clinton administration. The professor stated as a matter of fact that it was only a matter of time before a storm came along and wiped away New Orleans. It's a city that exists below sea level. Expecting the city to go on forever without being destroyed is a kind of optimism that dumbfounds me and that is why I don't really understand this idea that there was more that we could or should have done to prevent the destruction in the first place. I understand the complaints about handling supplies and evacuation, but I don't understand the idea that any amount of resources devoted to stopping the effects of natural occurrences is justified regardless of the degree of impact it might have. I lived in California for many years and it's sad to say, but people who live in houses in the hills have to expect that at some point a mudslide is going to destroy their house, and if you live someplace below sea level you have to expect that at some point you are going to be flooded. Part of the real problem in my mind is that flood insurance is oversubsidized so that it is "affordable." Charging less for insurance doesn't change the cost in the long run. It increases the moral hazard problem and because people are not paying the true value of the insurance it increases the amount of people who chose to live in areas that are likely to be flooded.

I have also heard many people comment that Bush took funding from the levees for Iraq. The unstated premise is that money kept for use on the levees would have been used to increase their stability. Forget for a moment that it is not at all clear that stronger levees would have been able to withstand the effects of Katrina, it is also not at all clear that the money would have been used toward that end. As the Washington Post reported here, funding for the levees has moved towards questionable projects.

"Before Hurricane Katrina breached a levee on the New Orleans Industrial Canal, the Army Corps of Engineers had already launched a $748 million construction project at that very location. But the project had nothing to do with flood control. The Corps was building a huge new lock for the canal, an effort to accommodate steadily increasing barge traffic.
Except that barge traffic on the canal has been steadily decreasing."

Also from the article: "But overall, the Bush administration's funding requests for the key New Orleans flood-control projects for the past five years were slightly higher than the Clinton administration's for its past five years. Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, the chief of the Corps, has said that in any event, more money would not have prevented the drowning of the city, since its levees were designed to protect against a Category 3 storm, and the levees that failed were already completed projects. Strock has also said that the marsh-restoration project would not have done much to diminish Katrina's storm surge, which passed east of the coastal wetlands."

So there is that. There is also another point that some of my Libertarian friends have already keyed in on, but that I feel the need to reiterate. Those who think that the government should have been there to solve the problem must have missed the fact that much of the problem was the government. It was businesses and charities that acted quickly and efficiently and it was the government at all levels that thwarted their efforts at every turn. The Salvation Army and the Red Cross were just two of many charities planning rescue operations and attempts to deliver supplies. One of the great ironies, that I hope will not be forgotten by the left is that Wal-Mart, sometimes referred to as the great Satan, "is being held up as a model for logistical efficiency and nimble disaster planning, which have allowed it to quickly deliver staples such as water, fuel and toilet paper to thousands of evacuees." I can't help but comment that this is due to the same efficiency that is so often decried by its opponents as destructive to our nation. Article here.

To me the biggest scandal is the residents of the city who were prevented from leaving the city by law enforcement officials at all levels. This seems to be a recurring story. People could have walked to the West Bank after the storm but were not allowed to cross the bridge for no discernible reason. I understand that there were issues of lawlessness that prevented many from entering the city (the accounts of ambulances and other emergency service vehicles waited across the bridge but refusing to enter because of accounts of people shooting at emergency personnel), but I can't fathom a good reason why you wouldn't let people out. I've heard many people claim that it was the result of racism. That the authorities wanted black people to die. I think that is a rather absurd conclusion personally, though I know some of my readers will agree with it wholeheartedly. For now though, I'll await the inevitable investigation and see if I'm proven wrong. My suspicion however is that once again the government thought that by controlling everyone and everything it could do a better job organizing everything than people could do on their own and thus thought that they were actually doing some good by "maintaining order." It's times like this that I want to compile Hayek's dissertations on spontaneous order and send them to everyone in government. Anyway...That's my two cents.

Comments:
Of course I have to comment... I can't let this sort of thing go by, and you know that.

In a nutshell, I think you're wrong on almost every point. I think that the government should have built stronger levees and had a more effective evacuation plan. Yes, the city is underwater, and would eventually get flooded. However, the people didn't need to be.

The larger point that I think you missed is that we have a really, really good reason for holding the government responsible for their poor response: Namely, President Bush assured the nation after 9/11 that he was making us safer, that his policies were preparing us to respond to disasters. We were told that emergency preparedness (a word that wasn't even in popular usage pre-9/11, I might point out) had increased significantly. We were told that the President and his adminstration understood how to keep us safe.

And then, along comes a hurricane--not even a sudden attack, mind you, but a forseeable event--and the whole emergency response system fell apart. The issue is accountability, and not only because the government should respond to disasters, but specifically because this government said that it would be prepared to respond, and it wasn't.
 
I appreciate your comment, however I don't think there was much that related back to my specific points. You start your comment by stating that you think I'm wrong on almost every point, but ignore much of what I actually said. I specifically stated "I understand the complaints about handling supplies and evacuation" and proceeded to address the specific argument that the disaster should or could have been avoided separate from the issue of evacuation. As to the issue of evacuation though, I will say that it was those who relied upon the government to evacuate them that were hurt and why this doesn't tell us that maybe we shouldn't encourage people to rely on the government for such things is not entirely clear to me.

That the government should have built stronger levees is perhaps an argument to make, but I fail to see how this specific administration is particularly at fault since the danger of flooding has existed for decades and the levees have always been designed for level 3 assaults. I think the same goes for the evacuation plan. I obviously think that local officials are more to blame for not having proper evacuation plans than Federal because evacuation seems to fall clearly among the duties of state and local governments. That being said, FEMA should have had its own evacuation plans and the fact that they didn't also says something striking because prior administrations also did not have any plans for such an event. Even if we assume some other administration would have been better able to throw one together on the spot, I see this as a flaw in government in general and not of a particular administration.

You also commented that President Bush assured the nataion after 9/11 that he would make us safer. Safer is obviously contextual. I'm not taking a position on whether we are safer or not, but I will say that just because a disaster occurs and is even handled poorly does not mean we are necessarily not safer than we were before. I can improve my diet and catch a cold, but that doesn't mean that on the whole I'm not healthier.
 
I don't know why I'm responding, except that I can't let a conservative get the last word.

First, I did choose to ignore the vast majority of your points. Yes, I think you're wrong, and no, I'm not going to disect every sentence and explain exactly why, because I don't have the time or the inclination.

Instead, I'm focusing on what you missed: the federal government assumed responsibility for being able to respond to disasters, and then then blew it. There are a great many reasons why the feds are better suited for disaster relief that the locals (sheer size comes to mind, but there are many others), but that's not the point. The point is that the feds, for better or for worse, have this responsibility, and they let us down.

Oh, and the "health analogy" is deeply flawed. Here is a more appropriate one: you go the physician because you have a sore throat. He tells you need to have your tonsils removed, and schedules an operation. During the operation, however, the surgeon leaves the OR and goes on vacation, and he leaves you in the hands of someone completely unqualified to perform the surgery--a man who judges horse shows, say. You suffer injury because the operation is botched. When you try to seek some compensation, he tells you: "Well, that's what you get for having tonsils in the first place. And if anyone is to blame, it's your immune system for not fighting the tonsilitis in the first place."
 
I know I'm not going to get anywhere arguing this with you, but I have to point out that if you think your analogy is better than mine you have greatly missed the point I was illustrating. The point I was illustrating is that just because something bad happens and is handled poorly does not say anything by itself about whether or not we as a whole are better off or worse off from another set of circumstances. To say that we are safer does not mean that bad things will not continue to happen. Your analogy has nothing to do with my point and is therefore not the proper analogy for what I was trying to illustrate.

I'd also like to point out that "sheer size" does not necessarily make an entity better suited to respond to disaster. In fact, I can easily make the opposite argument. Smaller units are more capable of responding quickly and adapting and are more likely to be in possession of localized knowledge. I would argue that the federal government is not in the best position to deal with natural disasters precisely because most people don't live in an area likely to be affected.

And by the way, since it's my blog, you really are going to have to deal with the fact that I'll always get the last word.
 
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