On Shrove Tuesday evening I made some crab gumbo for our dinner (the best I’ve ever made—I’ll give you the recipe some time). As we ate I thought, rather glumly, about the situation in New Orleans and the plight of the people who fled from Hurricane Katrina’s wrath six months ago.
The news of the day, of course, is the what-did-he-know-and-when-did-he-know-it on the President’s response to the disaster. As we all know it wasn’t awe-inspiring but since I believe that the federal government is deliberately very ill-equipped for dealing with such situations I thought they did as well as might be expected so I wasn’t as disappointed as some people seem to be. Bureaucracies are like one-celled organisms: they exist to continue existing and to reproduce.
An aside: isn’t it amazing that the federal government does reasonably well in handling its enumerated powers (the military, foreign policy, mail delivery, the mint, etc.) and just terribly at managing the “general welfare” duties that have been arrogated to it over the last 70 years or so? (education, health care, etc.)
At any rate before reading my following short discussion on what’s been done wrong and where do we go from here on re-building after the catastrophe, you might want to read my historical analysis of previous comparable disaster responses: “Learning from history: the relief and rebuilding of New Orleans”.
In my view here’s what’s been done wrong:
- The President should never have made all the overblown excessive undeliverable (but probably well-intentioned and certainly politically expedient) pledges of support.
- Under no circumstances should cash (or debit cards) have been handed out. When you leave a $20 bill on the table and walk away, you shouldn’t be too surprised if someone picks it up. Or uses it to buy booze.
Water under the bridge—no doubt most of what’s been spent to date has simply been pissed away. Here’s what should be done going forward:
- The President should say “Ooops! The federal government isn’t going to rebuild New Orleans after all” and take the inevitable licking like a man.
- The Army Corps of Engineers needs to lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way on the levees.
- Federal handouts should be exclusively on the basis of need.
- The federal support for victims should not simply terminate. It should be extended if necessary and phased out over the period of a few months under terms that are so heavily publicized that only someone who didn’t give a damn could possibly not know about it. People shouldn’t be dropped flat but they do need to be encouraged to get off their duffs and support themselves—even if they’ve never done it before in their lives.
- FEMA should get the hell out of the way.
- We shouldn’t forget the other Louisiana parishes and the Mississippi counties who were, in some cases, even harder hit by Katrina and Rita than was New Orleans. How about tax-free investment zones?
- The leading citizens of New Orleans should take the lead in re-building their city. Don’t expect the federal government to lead, support you, or, in fact, do anything but get in the way.
Nobody wants or will take my advice but I’m giving it anyway.
UPDATES: The usual suspects are reacting, well, as usual. Left-leaning blogs are jumping all over this story as prima facie evidence for the calumny of Bush. Right-leaning blogs leaping to Bush’s defense and pointing to the story as another case of the BDS of the press. They may well both be right. I’m more concerned about moving forward on this and would like to see more progress than finger-pointing.