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Katrina and the Never-Ending Scandal of State Management

September 13, 2005

Tags The EnvironmentFree MarketsBig Government

For the most part, we know what happened — and what did not happen — after Katrina had battered parts of the U.S. Gulf Coast and flooded most of New Orleans. Despite promises of aid "around the corner," adequate government assistance did not reach many of the refugees, and especially the people of New Orleans who were stuffed into the Superdome, the New Orleans Convention Center, not to mention nursing homes and roofs of houses.

As we now know, government agents stymied attempts by private individuals and organizations to bring provisions to people who had none. People languished for about five days before the "cavalry" arrived, bringing provisions and some bit of hope.

Thus, the "discussion" is usually framed as follows: The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), led by an incompetent lawyer who was unaware of the desperation of the hurricane and flood survivors, botched rescue operations, mistakenly turned away people who were bringing provisions, and generally mismanaged the rescue and relief efforts.

Why this happened generally is explained according to one's political preferences. Many people — including most Democrats — say that it was because the Bush Administration is racist, and that since most of the refugees in New Orleans were black and poor, the president and his minions simply did not care about them.

Others point to the war in Iraq because it has diverted both funds and manpower that were needed immediately after the storm. Still others (like Anne Rice in a New York Times column) claim that it was total indifference by the people of the United States, not just a failure of government.

The huge outpouring of private aid, from donation of money, food, clothing, time, and housing (many people simply have taken in refugees — white and black — in their own homes) stands in contrast to Rice's "America is hopelessly racist and hates the poor" and demonstrates that the will to sacrifice for those truly in need certainly exists in this country. While it is not surprising that the elitist New York Times would take this as its standard view, it also is a shame when the country's "newspaper of record" can't even record the right things.

Yet, for all of the public angst over the federal government's — and especially FEMA's — post-disaster response, most observers have missed what is painfully obvious: the government's response was perfectly in character to how people in government act in such situations. To say this in an alternative way, government was being government the same way that a dog is a dog.

As anyone knows, dogs are territorial animals, and governments are territorial entities. The first rule that a government agent follows when confronted with an "emergency" is to "secure the area." For example, when two young men were merrily going on a murder and mayhem spree at Columbine High School in 1999, the vaunted police "SWAT" team stayed outside and encircled the complex because someone said that the area had to be "secured" before police actually could try to save anyone. (Of course, we found out later that not only did police fail to save people, but at least one person bled to death because police refused to get help until the man had died. This was not incompetence; it was the normal workings of the "I am in charge and don't you forget it" mentality that permeates government at all levels.)

Immediately after the hurricane had stopped in New Orleans, for example, a Wal-Mart had brought a truckload of bottled water; FEMA officials turned the truck away, declaring that it was "not needed." Before we dismiss this incident as yet another example of incompetent government, we should realize that the official's actions were completely within the character of government.

When governments act to provide services to individuals, they are done within a very different context than what occurs when private organizations provide services. The post-Katrina services performed by the Red Cross and other organizations such as civil groups and churches did not come with the threat of force attached to them. Church volunteers cannot arrest or even kill someone in those circumstances, but a representative of the government can perform such things without recrimination (and on more than one occasion did just that post-Katrina).

Moreover, government services are performed in as visible a manner as possible. Anyone who has watched some of the post-hurricane coverage has seen press conference after press conference after photo-opportunity of government officials from President George W. Bush to mayors, governors, FEMA and military personnel and the like, people whose job is to be seen doing "good" for political constituents. These things are done with the podium and the TV camera in mind.

The FEMA official who waved off the Wal-Mart truck was correct; FEMA did not "need" Wal-Mart to help. In fact, people from FEMA did not want Wal-Mart to help, as the company would have been able to steal some of the thunder that "rightfully" should belong to FEMA and other government agencies.

Now, it did not matter to FEMA officials that a large number of people needed the provisions that the Wal-Mart truck was carrying. While I am sure that any member of FEMA would employ rhetoric to the contrary, but I stand by my point. It does FEMA no good at all for Wal-Mart to do something for which FEMA receives no credit. Furthermore, this "securing the area" business is nonsense, and the people at FEMA know it. Yes, there are risks that people take going into areas just after something devastating like a hurricane or earthquake has occurred, but the vast majority of people who put themselves into such situation know beforehand about the nature of dangers they are facing.

Because FEMA has been designated the main provider and organizer of post-natural disaster rescue and relief operations, this presents a number of problems that occur at the outset. Despite all of the pre-disaster planning that might occur, a real event has its own set of problems that must be evaluated (literally) on the ground, not in an office in Washington, D.C. To put it another way, a Hayekian "knowledge problem" exists in a situation in which immediate responses are critical.

Even if the heads of FEMA were stellar professionals (which they are not), they still would not have been able to make informed and intelligent decisions from their original vantage points. Instead, the very people who should have been making decisions — the ones who were closest to the disaster — were the ones purposely left out of the loop.

As pointed out earlier, the "knowledge" problem comes to the fore. However, others have tried to give their own explanations, and, to be honest, many of them simply are bad. Paul Krugman, for example, said that the poor initial response was due to the influx of conservative ideology that fails to recognize the greatness and wisdom of government. He writes: "The federal government's lethal ineptitude wasn't just a consequence of Mr. Bush's personal inadequacy; it was a consequence of ideological hostility to the very idea of using government to serve the public good. For 25 years the right has been denigrating the public sector, telling us that government is always the problem, not the solution. Why should we be surprised that when we needed a government solution, it wasn't forthcoming?"

George Bush hostile to using government? One has to wonder whether some writers read the papers at all.

The way that we should address such issues is not to give the government more power, which is what the political classes of the left and right are demanding. Krugman, one must understand, is calling for a breach in the rule of law, the creation of what only can be called mini-dictatorships.

Two emergency medical workers attending a New Orleans conference when the disaster struck give an account of living under such dictatorial rule:

We decided we had to save ourselves. So we pooled our money and came up with $25,000 to have ten buses come and take us out of the City. Those who did not have the requisite $45.00 for a ticket were subsidized by those who did have extra money. We waited for 48 hours for the buses, spending the last 12 hours standing outside, sharing the limited water, food, and clothes we had. We created a priority boarding area for the sick, elderly and new born babies. We waited late into the night for the "imminent" arrival of the buses. The buses never arrived. We later learned that the minute they arrived to the City limits, they were commandeered by the military.

It gets worse:

We organized ourselves and the 200 of us set off for the (Greater New Orleans) bridge (that crosses the Mississippi River) with great excitement and hope. As we marched pasted [sic] the convention center, many locals saw our determined and optimistic group and asked where we were headed. We told them about the great news. Families immediately grabbed their few belongings and quickly our numbers doubled and then doubled again. Babies in strollers now joined us, people using crutches, elderly clasping walkers and others people in wheelchairs. We marched the 2-3 miles to the freeway and up the steep incline to the Bridge. It now began to pour down rain, but it did not dampen our enthusiasm.

As we approached the bridge, armed Gretna sheriffs formed a line across the foot of the bridge. Before we were close enough to speak, they began firing their weapons over our heads. This sent the crowd fleeing in various directions. As the crowd scattered and dissipated, a few of us inched forward and managed to engage some of the sheriffs in conversation. We told them of our conversation with the police commander and of the commander's assurances. The sheriffs informed us there were no buses waiting. The commander had lied to us to get us to move.

We questioned why we couldn't cross the bridge anyway, especially as there was little traffic on the 6-lane highway. They responded that the West Bank was not going to become New Orleans and there would be no Superdomes in their City.

They later attempted to build a small camp on the abandoned freeway, only to be attacked by police and forced to move, so they were forced to survive in other ways:

In the pandemonium of having our camp raided and destroyed, we scattered once again. Reduced to a small group of 8 people, in the dark, we sought refuge in an abandoned school bus, under the freeway on Cilo Street. We were hiding from possible criminal elements but equally and definitely, we were hiding from the police and sheriffs with their martial law, curfew and shoot-to-kill policies.

And when they finally made it to the airport, there were the final acts of official degradation:

We arrived at the airport on the day a massive airlift had begun. The airport had become another Superdome. We 8 were caught in a press of humanity as flights were delayed for several hours while George Bush landed briefly at the airport for a photo op. After being evacuated on a coast guard cargo plane, we arrived in San Antonio, Texas.

There the humiliation and dehumanization of the official relief effort continued. We were placed on buses and driven to a large field where we were forced to sit for hours and hours. Some of the buses did not have air-conditioners. In the dark, hundreds if us were forced to share two filthy overflowing porta-potties. Those who managed to make it out with any possessions (often a few belongings in tattered plastic bags) we were subjected to two different dog-sniffing searches.

Most of us had not eaten all day because our C-rations had been confiscated at the airport because the rations set off the metal detectors. Yet, no food had been provided to the men, women, children, elderly, disabled as they sat for hours waiting to be "medically screened" to make sure we were not carrying any communicable diseases.

This official treatment was in sharp contrast to the warm, heart-felt reception given to us by the ordinary Texans. We saw one airline worker give her shoes to someone who was barefoot. Strangers on the street offered us money and toiletries with words of welcome. Throughout, the official relief effort was callous, inept, and racist.

No doubt, defenders of the police will say that they were "keeping order," but one also has the sense that the actions of the police helped to make things even more disorderly. On the other hand, the so-called "renegades" who are criticized by the government and larger organizations like the Red Cross, help bring order to the chaos. Writes Laurie Holloway in the Tennessean after her visit to crisis areas in Mississippi:

I'm telling you, without the churches, this disaster would be even worse, as hard as it is to believe that's possible. Donate if you will to the Red Cross or the Salvation Army, but know that the bureaucracy behind the big organizations is simply staggering. Without the people setting up the "renegade" food, clothing and supplies distribution centers, usually at churches, there would be many, many more deaths. Supplies are pouring into this area from all across the nation, huge truckloads of canned goods, water, medical stuff. They're being collected at these churches, and they're very organized about getting the supplies out to folks. I'm very impressed.

That is not the message the government wants you to hear. Remember, the "official" word on such private, mini-relief activities has been that they are "not helpful." But, remember that many of the most "helpful" people are those who have not carried weapons, but rather a strong commitment in their hearts to do whatever is necessary. Write the "refugee" EMTs:

We also suspect the media will have been inundated with "hero" images of the National Guard, the troops and the police struggling to help the "victims" of the Hurricane. What you will not see, but what we witnessed, were the real heroes and sheroes of the hurricane relief effort: the working class of New Orleans. The maintenance workers who used a fork lift to carry the sick and disabled. The engineers, who rigged, nurtured and kept the generators running. The electricians who improvised thick extension cords stretching over blocks to share the little electricity we had in order to free cars stuck on rooftop parking lots. Nurses who took over for mechanical ventilators and spent many hours on end manually forcing air into the lungs of unconscious patients to keep them alive. Doormen who rescued folks stuck in elevators. Refinery workers who broke into boat yards, "stealing" boats to rescue their neighbors clinging to their roofs in flood waters. Mechanics who helped hot-wire any car that could be found to ferry people out of the City. And the food service workers who scoured the commercial kitchens improvising communal meals for hundreds of those stranded.

Most of these workers had lost their homes, and had not heard from members of their families, yet they stayed and provided the only infrastructure for the 20% of New Orleans that was not under water.

  It's here! $20

For those who maintain that the government "failed" its "mission," I must say that they are wrong. True, the government with its ham-fisted policies of blocking relief missions, imposing price controls, and acting in a dictatorial, but incompetent style, seems to have "failed" in making things better, especially in the days directly after the storm passed. But, if you understand that government is a mechanism by which some people impose their will by force over others, then you would have to admit that the government succeeded and succeeded beyond its own expectations.

Thus, I leave readers with this question: If you believe that the government "failed" in the aftermath of Katrina, will the government then have less or more "authority" when the next disaster strikes? I think all of us know the answer.

You can always expect government to behave exactly like government. When you consider your political position, consider whether this institution ought to be put in charge or disaster relief at all, or the economy, or society, foreign policy, health care, education, courts, the environment or anything at all. Katrina and its aftermath is only the latest exhibit in the ongoing historical documentary in favor of a government-free society.

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William Anderson, an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, teaches economics at Frostburg State University. Send him MAIL. See his Mises.org Articles Archive. Comment on the blog.


Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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