Commentary

When the Catastrophe Is Government

This article first appeared on FoxNews.com on Sept. 7, 2005.
In a few days, we’ll observe the fourth anniversary of Sept. 11, at the time the most catastrophic failure of our government in my lifetime.

What’s odd is that just after our government failed in its duty to protect us, the public’s faith in the president, the Congress, and government in general soared. Congress indemnified the airlines and private security firms for their failures — in effect removing any market punishment for them — and put airport security under federal control (with predictable results).

Our elected officials responded to the bureaucratic failings of our various intelligence agencies by creating the Department of Homeland Security, the largest bureaucracy we’ve ever seen. Federal spending skyrocketed. We created new cabinet-level positions. We handed over a number of our civil liberties, because our government told us doing so was necessary to protect our freedom.

Sept. 11 is no longer the most catastrophic failure of government in my lifetime. Its response to Hurricane Katrina is. Government at all levels, run by both parties, regardless of race, inexcusably failed to secure the safety of the people of New Orleans. The lesson here is not the failure of one party or the other. The lesson here is the failure of government.

Despite decades of knowing what a Category 4 or 5 hurricane could do to New Orleans, for example, local officials failed to have an adequate evacuation plan in place. The dispossessed were shuffled off to the Superdome with no security, and little food or water. There was no effort at organization, dissemination of information, or order. The state government failed to amass state resources to aid in the evacuation of people with no means to get out. Inexcusably, both state and local officials made the exact same mistakes they made in response to Hurricane Ivan, just a year earlier. And they’d made similar mistakes in 1998, with Hurricane Georges.

The federal government’s shortcomings have been widely reported. They include the symbolic: After the storm hit, President Bush strummed a guitar at a fundraiser, invoking comparisons to Nero. He couldn’t cut the last few days of his five-week vacation. Vice President Cheney returned from his vacation six days after the storm hit.

They include cronyism: FEMA Director Michael Brown was brought into the organization after having been fired from his previous job directing horse shows. He had no emergency management experience, and seems to have been hired because he was the college buddy of President Bush’s pal Joe Allbaugh (who now runs a firm that consults companies on how to win contracts from FEMA and other federal agencies).

And of course they include incompetence: The inexcusable ignorance of FEMA and DHS officials about events that had been in the news for days. And have a look at this chart. It’s the power structure of the federal government’s emergency response system. Is it any wonder why it took days to get help to people stranded in floodwaters?

Much of that chart was in direct response to Sept. 11. And many of the changes in response to Sept. 11 — including moving FEMA under the auspices of DHS — exacerbated the government failure last week. If after four years of preparation, this is the DHS response to a disaster that was foreseeable for years, and that it had days to prepare for, one shudders to think how the agency will respond to a surprise terrorist attack.

The Army Corps of Engineers began the task of shoring up Lake Ponchartrain decades ago. Administrations and Congresses controlled by both parties had ample opportunity to ensure the task was completed. They had other priorities. When the federal government took over the responsibility to protect New Orleans, it effectively shut out any private or local efforts that may have emerged to upgrade the levee system.

If a consortium of corporations and businesses with assets in New Orleans had gotten together in the 1960s and hired a private firm to protect their investments from a flood, the project would have been completed in a matter of years, at most. Don’t believe me? Look at the past week. Private ingenuity has flourished where government response has failed.

By Wednesday of last week, the Hyatt company had sent food and supplies from its Atlanta and Houston hotels to its hotel in New Orleans. The New Orleans Hyatt is less than half a mile from the convention center, an area of the city local and federal government officials said was inaccessible. Oil companies had sent crews in to begin repairs of rigs and refineries on Monday. Television reporters, news crews, even Harry Connick, Jr. managed to navigate through a city the government said was too perilous for relief efforts.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune noted that by Thursday, WalMart had delivered thirteen trucks of supplies while government bureaucrats were still ringing their hands. By the time the federal government finally marched into New Orleans, the Red Cross had sheltered over 130,000 people, and delivered more than 2.5 million meals. By the time military brigades began rescuing people from rooftops, ordinary citizens had saved thousands with private boats.

While government bureaucrats dawdled, politicians covered their rumps, and partisans played the blame game, civil society — private entities — got to the business of helping people. What’s worse, in some cases, government prevented the private dissemination of aid. Wal-Mart had three water trucks in New Orleans almost immediately after the hurricane hit. FEMA turned them away. The Red Cross reported on its website that federal and local officials had barred the organization from actually entering New Orleans. Same with the Salvation Army.

One doctor told the Associated Press, “There are entire hospitals that are contacting me, saying, ‘We need to take on patients,’ but they can’t get through the bureaucracy. The crime of this story is, you’ve got millions of dollars in assets and it’s not deployed. We mount a better response in a Third World country.”

There should certainly be accountability here. The bureaucrats who failed should be fired. The political appointees who didn’t live up to their responsibilities should be dismissed. And one can only hope that the negligent politicians will be punished at the ballot box. But more fundamentally, we need to recognize that this is not so much a failure of individuals as it was a fundamental failure of government — at its most basic and important responsibility, no less. The last time government failed on so large a scale, we reinvigorated our trust in that same government to protect us. We do so again at our peril.

Last week, a blogger named Nicholas Weininger put it best, in words I wish I had written. Observing the tales of individual heroism, private initiative, and generosity coming out of the hurricane-damaged areas, Weininger wrote:

“Rarely has it been so clear how much we, the ordinary people of this country, are better than our rulers. I hope that lesson is not lost on anyone, of any political persuasion.”

Radley Balko is a policy analyst for the Cato Institute.