Against my better judgment I’m going to yield to the requests of my mom and eldest sister and put down my preliminary thoughts on what our response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina should (and shouldn’t) be. I have few illusions that any of my ideas on this subject will find much favor with Congress, the President, or probably anyone other than me. First, what we shouldn’t do.
- The federal government should not rebuild New Orleans.
There will be enormous pressure to do it—the president and Congress should resist it. As it was New Orleans was a below sea-level city poised between a river and a lake and had been sinking since the day the first brick was laid. The French Quarter, the highest part of the city, was spared to a much greater degree than the remainder of the city. New Orleans, alone I believe among major Southern cities, has lost population. I believe that’s indicative of a deep social pathology there. There’s no doubt in my mind that the French Quarter, the Garden District, and the other parts of the city that genuinely should be restored particularly the Port of New Orleans can be done so with private investment. There will be much greater opportunity for many of the people who have been evacuated from New Orleans elsewhere—the interviews I’ve heard clearly reflect that.
- The Congress should not establish a 9/11-like fund for victims of Hurricane Katrina.
I’ve already heard calls for such a thing. Katrina was not analogous to 9/11, the likelihood of fraud is enormously high and inescapable, and the costs would be be gargantuan. Where would we stop? We’ll be reimbursing people for earthquake damage, flooding, fires, mud slides, and snowstorms.
- We shouldn’t be giving large cash stipends to victims of Katrina
Any direct cash payments should be no more than a week’s basic expenses at a time and should be ratcheted down rapidly. I have real doubts about the prudence of the $2,000 I’ve already heard about. Sounds like a license for abuse to me. The ratcheting down should be on a fixed, known schedule.
- The Congress should not indemnify people against losses beyond whatever insurance provides for.
I’m sure I’ll think of other things we shouldn’t do and I may incorporate them later.
Here’s what we should do immediately.
- First, we need to stop thinking of rescue, relief, and recovery in terms of hours and days and start thinking in terms of weeks, months, and years.
Measuring our response to the aftermath of Katrina in hours or days is like measuring the distance to the moon in millimeters. If we’d done that, we’d never have made it there.
- We should focus our attentions on the actual victims of the hurricane and flooding.
- The basic needs of the victims of the hurricane and flooding are food, clothing, medical care, housing, and employment. Education for the children.
- We should start building semi-permanent housing on military bases, adjacent to military land, or on other public lands (in that order).
The housing should be individual residences for families. Perhaps the assistance or consultation of Habitat for Humanity could be solicited. Not fancy and not permanent. After the first month at least a nominal rent should be charged. The rent should be ratcheted up on a fixed schedule over a period of a year to encourage people to get out and get jobs and find other housing. How much do we need? We don’t know. Start with 10,000 units. As many as a million people may have fled Katrina and may be without homes. It’s not just the folks who were stranded in New Orleans who will be needing help but those in Mississippi and Alabama including those who fled by car. Some kind of structures should be available for schools for the children and medical facilities, especially for the aged.
UPDATE: Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution has an alternative suggestion that would appear to have merit: expand the emergency Section 8 voucher for Katrina victims. I’m having problems reaching Marginal Revolution right now but Megan McArdle of Asymmetrical Information has reproduced the post in full. I’m a little concerned that the post appears to freely interchange nationwide vacancies and vacancies in the area and doesn’t relate vacancies to requirements but it sounds like an idea that at the very least deserves some investigation. I continue to believe that the need is being massively underestimated.
- Food, medical care, etc. should be handled in a manner similar to the method suggested for housing above.
The initial distribution should be free. After the first month, there should be a nominal charge which is ratcheted up to full market value (or above) on a fixed schedule.
- FEMA should concentrate more of its attention on coordinating government and private organizations and individuals giving assistance rather than on providing assistance.
Turning away assistance discourages future assistance and help is going to be needed for a long, long time. I’m unimpressed by professional national relief and recovery efforts. There are a lot of amateurs who genuinely want to help and that should be encouraged.
There are other things we should do in the longer term.
- Congress should shut down litigation on this much as they did on behalf of the airline industry following 9/11.
Find a way.
- FEMA should be abolished.
We should go back to something that more closely resembles the old Civil Defense approach. National Civil Defense should concentrate primarily on coordinating local Civil Defense (which in turn should be primarily volunteer), establishing standards, and measuring performance. Congressional rules should limit how much funding (for any purpose) states and localities should be able to receive that don’t meet civil defense performance standards.
I may add to this list as things occur to me. And I’m certainly open to suggestions.
Technorati tag: Hurricane Katrina