Did New York's Wonderful Big Government Fail to Plan for a Much-Predicted Disaster?

While Superstorm Sandy brought forth lusty cheers for big government from the likes of the New York Times editorial board, TV funnyman Jon Stewart, former sportswriter Mike Lupica, U.S. News reporter Susan Milligan, The Globe and Mail's news pages, and scores of other commentators in the media-industrial complex, there has arisen a complicating fact: Analysts have been warning the (big) governments of New York for years that they should build more robust defenses against just this type of flood. Reports the New York Times:

For nearly a decade, scientists have told city and state officials that New York faces certain peril: rising sea levels, more frequent flooding and extreme weather patterns. The alarm bells grew louder after Tropical Storm Irene last year, when the city shut down its subway system and water rushed into the Rockaways and Lower Manhattan. [...]

With an almost eerie foreshadowing, the dangers laid out by scientists as they tried to press public officials for change in recent years describes what happened this week: Subway tunnels filled with water, just as they warned. Tens of thousands of people in Manhattan lost power. The city shut down.

Comments Walter Russell Mead:

Here in New York we have a very busy government. It's worried about the kinds of fats we eat and the size of the soft drinks we buy, and there is no shortage of regulations affecting businesses, street vendors, and individuals. But in all this exciting fine tuning, nobody seems to have bothered to think about the much greater task of keeping floodwaters out of the subway system. [...]

The problem with nanny state governance isn't just that it's intrusive. It isn't just that it stifles business with over-regulation, and it isn't just that it empowers busybodies and costs money. It's that it distracts government from the really big jobs that it ought to be doing.

Hat tip to Instapundit. I'm always wary of post-facto expertise on preventing catastrophic damage, and I can't judge whether the public policy suggestions outlined in the NYT article would be prudent. But with at least 60 people killed in the northeast, and hundreds of thousands without power in New York, it seems premature to convert understandable gratitude for local emergency response into a blanket endorsement of all storm-related government activity, let alone of big government writ large.

Related: I went on Huffington Post live on Tuesday to discuss just how monstrous Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are regarding FEMA:

And tune into tonight's Stossel on Fox Business Channel at 9 PM ET to watch me, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), Ira Stoll, and other libertarian pals talk about various myths related to disaster response and elections.

Re-read Nick Gillespie on "3 Stupid Responses to Hurricane Sandy–and Every Other Disaster You Can Think Of."

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  • R C Dean||

    Mead's comment on the apparent priorities of Bloomberg's very busy government calls to mind a rarely used Iron Law:

    When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    Ah, yes. At my workplace, we call this "The Vital Many" (as opposed, of course, to "The Vital FEW" objectives that we aspire to have)

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    It's even worse than that. It's not that they were going to get to the flood planning but got distracted by sodium and soda planning, it's that they explicitly didn't give a flerk about flood planning.

  • robc||

    And its easy to figure out why. Banning soda is easy, if ineffective. Fixing the flood problem is hard.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    Well, if you're not concerned about effectiveness, flood planning is easy too.

    The main difference is that nobody notices or reports on the failure of the soda ban to accomplish its supposed goals, while the results of ineffective flood planning would be plain to see.

  • robc||

    All true.

    The other problem is if you fix the flood problem then no one notices, because nothing bad happens.

    Led Zeppelin didnt write any songs about the Levees that Didnt Break.

  • BakedPenguin||

    They didn't even write any songs about ones that did, either. They did cover one, with or without attribution.

  • robc||

    The lyrics of their version is significantly different than the original.

    It may have technically been a cover, but it was greatly adapted. They wrote a large percentage of it.

  • BakedPenguin||

    How dare you refute my off-topic pedantry!

  • Pro Libertate||

    I'm sorry, but we appear to be having some sort of communication breakdown.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Hey, hey. What can I do?

  • Archduke Pantsfan||

    Bob Dylan made it worse.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I'm all dazed and confused right now.

  • Trespassers W||

    Something carouselambra something.

  • Ted S.||

    They drove their Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry?

  • Archduke Pantsfan||

    Holy shit, 'Tony' actually hauled out 'TEH CHILDRENZ!!!1111!!!! justification. He has gone beyond self-parody.

    That's a madonna song!

  • T o n y||

    The children... as in let's pretend no children exist so libertarianism has some shred of moral sense to it?

    That children exist is the primary reason I have the politics I do. It takes a village.

  • juris imprudent||

    It takes a village.

    And you clearly are the idiot.

  • Restoras||

    The children... as in let's pretend no children exist so libertarianism has some shred of moral sense to it?

    That children exist is the primary reason I have the politics I do. It takes a village.

    Does everyone see this? This is what happens when a pair of socks loses a mate. The survivor goes batshit insane.

    Please take care that all your socks are accounted for when transferring from the washer to the dryer. A sockbrain is a terrible thing to waste.

  • R C Dean||

    That children exist is the primary reason I have the politics I do.

    What an odd thing for a pro-choicer to say.

  • ant1sthenes||

    Look, non-breeder, some of us actually have children. Let us worry about them, k?

  • Archduke Pantsfan||

    They drove their Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry?

    That's a madonna song.
    Stupid copypastefail

  • Mo||

    And expensive. If it cost $5B to ban soda, Bloomberg wouldn't have done it.

  • Sudden||

    If this law had such priority, than no law would have priority.

  • Pound. Head. On. Desk.||

    When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

    I used these exact words about a relative who can't get her house (or any part of her life) straight even though she has 24 hours a day to do it. She's frozen by the idea she can't do it all now, and that something in these piles might be valuable.

  • rts||

    It's that it distracts government from the really big jobs that it ought to be doing.

    No, it oughtn't be doing many of those "big jobs" either.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    Right, no free rider problems inherent to seawalls.

  • robc||

    Why does the free-rider problem justify government action?

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    Because everyone is worse off if the city floods. Yes, I know my utilitarianism is showing here, but this is a slam dunk for Bentham U. The greater good really is good for almost every individual, and the individuals who are adversely affected by flood prevention (water pump salesmen?) aren't harmed that much.

  • robc||

    What about the individual who spends the extra money to buy property in the high parts of the city (Brooklyn Heights? Somewhere in the Bronx?), but still gets taxed to pay for flood prevention in the low parts?

    Its like the whole flood subsidies for the entire coast. If everyone just moved a few miles inland, the problem goes away. If you want to build on the coast, you takes your chances.

  • rho||

    Some things have to be built on the coast. Ports, for example, and the cities that service them.

    Sometimes there are other options, such as moving the major port of Galveston to Houston, but that's pretty rare.

  • robc||

    The owner of the port can build the defenses.

  • Shocked||

    And set aside funds for the inevitable. With coastal flooding its not if, its when.

  • rho||

    Ports are complicated things. Roads, bridges, rail lines, dredging, aids to navigation all working together to make a port a port.

    Even assuming that all of these are privately owned (including the waterways?), who pays for the defense of which parts? And who mediates disputes between the parties when they disagree on who pays for what?

    Ports tend to be natural monopolies based on geography, thus they tend to be owned or governed by a public body.

  • Shocked||

    Exactly. If you can't afford the risks you are taking, then you shouldn't be looking for relieve elsewhere. Unfortunately we have socialized flood risks, among others.

    Of course, if the rich would just pay a little bit more, all would be good. /snark.

  • T o n y||

    If you want to live in the plains, you take your chances with tornadoes. If you want to live in California, you take your chances with plate tectonics. Etc., etc. I'm sure your advice is so welcome to the children of parents who choose to live on the coasts.

    There is no libertarian solution for natural disasters except "more people should die so I can pay lower taxes." There seems to be a pretty direct correlation with the availability of institutions to deal with natural disasters and death tolls related to natural disasters.

  • $park¥||

    There seems to be a pretty direct correlation with the availability of institutions to deal with natural disasters and death tolls related to natural disasters.

    You make an excellent point Tony! Unfortunately, the feds keep taking all the resources from the local institutions that would be best suited to deal with natural disasters.

  • WTF||

    I'm sure your advice is so welcome to the children of parents who choose to live on the coasts.

    Holy shit, 'Tony' actually hauled out 'TEH CHILDRENZ!!!1111!!!! justification. He has gone beyond self-parody.

  • OldMexican||

    Re: Tony,

    If you want to live in the plains, you take your chances with tornadoes.

    If you want to live in the desert, you take your chances with the heat, the snakes and the lice. So?

    I'm sure your advice is so welcome to the children of parents who choose to live on the coasts.

    Why is it the responsibility of everybody else to pay for the stupid decisions of a few? Can you explain that to me? Just because idiots decide to breed does not turn everybody else into putative parents of their offspring.

    There is no libertarian solution for natural disasters except "more people should die so I can pay lower taxes."

    Thanks for the clumsy strawman. Just for starters, there's NO PROBLEM. If people decide to live near the coast or in dangerous places, they take their chance just like everybody else. WHY IS THAT A PROBLEM?

  • Zeb||

    It's only a problem because people assume that they will be taken care of when disaster strikes. It would probably take some time to disabuse people of that notion, but it wouldn't be too hard to do. Step 1, I think, would be no more subsidy for flood insurance.

  • Restoras||

    If you want to live in the plains...

    Fuck off, sockpuppet.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    If you want to live in Mordor, you take your chances with the orcs and poisonous fumes and weird foreigners trying to dump rings into volcanoes.

  • Knutsack||

    Interesting theory. So how much money do we need to pay in taxes so no one dies from natural disasters?

  • CE||

    No, it oughtn't be doing many of those "big jobs" either.

    FTFY

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    Related: I went on Huffington Post live on Tuesday to discuss just how monstrous Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are regarding FEMA

    From the same HuffPo:

    Even if spending cuts to FEMA do not take place in the beginning of the year, the organization will still have to confront a strict cap put in place for funding. $917 billion in cuts will occur over 10 years regardless of what lawmakers decide in January, according to the Post.

    In other words, it doesn't matter whose going to be in office, by law over $900B won't be going into FEMA's coffers.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    "By Executive Decree™, I declare these budget cuts to be rescinded effective immediately."

    There - fixed!

    /Emperor Obamney

  • Spartacus||

    That's an average of $91.7 billion per year. Is FEMA's budget really that large? The number sounds a lot like the total sequester amount.

  • Ptah-Hotep||

    That's an average of $91.7 billion per year. Is FEMA's budget really that large? The number sounds a lot like the total sequester amount.

    I think it is a typo. Here are the numbers from the WP:

    FEMA loses nearly $900 million if sequester cuts hit

    The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a $14.3 billion budget to coordinate the national response to disaster situations like Hurricane Sandy. Should the sequester take effect, the White House estimates that the agency would lose about $878 million, largely from programs that provide direct relief to disaster victims. That said, whether or not the sequester goes into effect, Congress has also provided new emergency funding for disaster relief thanks to the debt-ceiling deal.
  • Sudden||

    I think it is a typo

    As tempting as it would be to credit simple incompetence to a HuffPo writer, I am inclined to think the larger figure is part of the scaremongering "NOTHING SHOULD BE CUT!1!1!!!"

  • The Hammer||

    The $917 billion is total cuts. The FEMA cuts are in the millions. HuffPo is trying to conflate the two, and the commenters go even further.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    Not really surprising that the commenters would go off the rails.

  • Red Rocks Rockin||

    My favorite: "Going to be a long cold winter in the Northeast --people will wind up in wet tents with camp stoves."

    With zombie hordes raiding the Obamavilles, presumably.

  • Rights-Minimalist Autocrat||

    That distant whirring sound is Bastiat spinning in his grave.

  • Killazontherun||

    Out of a calculation of close to 44 trillion (a few padded in to make Obama look fiscally conservative)? Life is harsh for the Gov.

  • Alice Bowie||

    "Did New York's Wonderful Big Government Fail to Plan for a Much-Predicted Disaster?"

    Yea, that Much-predicted disaster.

    I'm waiting for John Stossell to do an article on how wrong it is to rob money from the tax payer to help people in disasters. That's not the government's job. People should just depend on charities.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    Ever heard of moral hazard?

    These disasters wouldn't be nearly as bad if people didn't expect the government to bail them out if they put themselves and their property in dangerous places with no adaptation to the danger.

  • T o n y||

    Alternative viewpoint: this disaster could have been much, much worse without a big government response. Think of if it had been Haiti instead of New Jersey. I'm talking death toll. People like to live near coastlines. Taking government away won't change that, it will just mean more people will die when a hurricane comes.

  • $park¥||

    Before you can compare New York to Haiti, you'd have to make everybody that lives in New York poor. Wait a minute, I think I see where you're going with this...

  • Virginian||

    The issue, Tony-the-retard, is that you are taking money from people who did not choose to live in a floodplain, and giving it to those who did. It's rewarding risk, and punishing prudence.

    The problem with you is that you cannot think. You emote, and then rationalize. Take federal spending on college, for another example. Why should the ditchdiggers and mechanics and other hard working blue collar types be forced to subsidize uppermiddle class Underwater Basket Weaving degrees.

    Pay for your own shit. The farther we move away from this, the less just our society gets.

  • OldMexican||

    Re: Tony,

    Alternative viewpoint: this disaster could have been much, much worse without a big government response.

    You seem to have missed the point completely - the disaster WAS AS BAD as it was because of the failure of government (who pushed everybody aside to take over the administration of the waterways and coastal lines) to keep, repair or build the infrastructure required to protect the cities and towns near the coast. Or at least stand aside to let the adults deal with those things.

    It wasn't like government arrived with a giant umbrella like Captain America and stemmed the effects of Sandy - it came later after the damage was already done. Any idiot can arrive after and take pictures with grieving homeowners.

    Think of if it had been Haiti instead of New Jersey.

    But this ISN'T Haiti, since the US is MUCH RICHER, yet the damage was almost thirdworldish.

  • Restoras||

    Alternative viewpoint:

    Go drown, sockpuppet.

  • Zeb||

    " People like to live near coastlines. Taking government away won't change that, it will just mean more people will die when a hurricane comes."

    Of course it would change that. Just eliminating federal flood insurance would greatly reduce the number of people living on shorelines. And those who did would not expect their losses to be paid for by everyone else, so they would not overbuild to the extent that they do now.

  • juris imprudent||

    People like to live near coastlines.

    And people should get what they like without any fucking repercussions, right?

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    It's called "positive rights", JI. Get with the Tony program.

  • In Time Of War||

    People like to have unprotected sex. Nobody could possibly argue that society should pay for the consequences...never mind.

  • OldMexican||

    Re: Alice Bowel,

    I'm waiting for John Stossell to do an article on how wrong it is to rob money from the tax payer to help people in disasters.

    But it is wrong to rob people to help others in disasters. Was there any doubt in your mind, or do you just like the idea of people being robbed?

    That's not the government's job. People should just depend on charities.

    Was there any doubt? Most of the help post-Katrina, and before FEMA arrived to sully things, came from charities and corporations.

  • R C Dean||

    People should just depend on charities.

    Or, of course, plan ahead and be better prepared for disasters.

    Not to mention buying insurance out of their own damn pockets.

  • rho||

    I don't think you can keep flood waters out of the subway system. Not unless you want to walk up up stairs before you walk down more stairs.

    I would assume the focus would be on getting the water out of the system as quickly as possible, which requires pumps and generators to power them when ConEd is stuffed. That's a non-trivial expense with recurring maintenance costs for a rare occurrence. That's also exactly the kind of thing government operated infrastructure should be doing, but it's about as sexy as granny panties. Nobody wants to be Mayor Granny Panties.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    Elevated tracks FTW.

  • robc||

    I assume they are cheaper than subways to build too.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    Actually, probably not. They're also more vulnerable to terrorism, as in Batman Begins. Plus they're an eyesore and disrupt traffic on the street they're built over.

  • rho||

    That's okay if you want to raze NYC and start over. There's also the noise problem of elevated tracks.

    There's only one real solution... MONORAIL!

  • Ptah-Hotep||

    There's only one real solution... MONORAIL!

    As long as it is a maglev system.

  • Bam!||

    Is there a chance the track could bend?

  • The Hammer||

    Not on your life, my onomatopoeiac friend.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    Manhattan once had elevated lines (privately constructed!) on all the major avenues, but demolished them all and built government owned subways.

  • CE||

    The real solution is a higher bandwidth internet, and avatars.

    Or just keep reelecting Obama, and no one will have a job to get to on time anyway.

  • Ted S.||

    I don't think you can keep flood waters out of the subway system. Not unless you want to walk up up stairs before you walk down more stairs.

    If memory serves from the semester I studied in Sankt-Peterburg, Russia 20 years ago, the metro stations there mostly have buildings over the entrance, with many of them having a step or two up to get into the building. At the very least, they don't just have sidewalk entry like many of the Manhattan stations.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    That doesn't necessarily keep water out, even if you could keep the water out of the buildings.

  • $park¥||

    For nearly a decade, scientists have told city and state officials that New York faces certain peril: rising sea levels, more frequent flooding and extreme weather patterns.

    Yeah, but those are scientists and who listens to them anyway? OK, who listens to them anyway when they don't agree with the narrative?

  • Killazontherun||

    We. just. didn't. listen.

  • aelhues||

    1 inch per decade...ooohhh, scary!

  • CE||

    So you're saying that a hundred years from now, that 11-foot storm surge will be 11 feet 10 inches??? Evacuate NOW!!!!

  • juris imprudent||

    Them scientists should be counting their lucky stars that this isn't Italy.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

    Quite possibly the most excellent law of all.

  • Pound. Head. On. Desk.||

    When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.
    Quite possibly the most excellent law of all.

    It's finite ordinal math: A is First, B is second, and so on. When you stack A through M on 1st, you have the problem of not knowing "which firsts" are "really first."

  • CE||

    And a little known corollary:

    You can only have 3 top priorities at once.

  • R C Dean||

    The Iron Laws are coequal. Like the Holy Trinity, only more numerous.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    the unintended consequences "law" is total bupkus.

  • R C Dean||

    BURN THE HERETIC!

  • JW||

    Tut-tut, Matt. I have no doubt that the high muckity-mucks in NYC are forming Very Important Committees and rounding up cronies to dish out the largess for studies and test seawalls, as we speak.

    They'll get right on it, just like they did with the WTC site.

  • tagtann||

    YEah dude I think its pretty clear they screwed up big time man!

    www.anon-e.tk

  • Shocked||

    Just wait until the wailing begins about all the poor folks who didn't know the needed, or couldn't afford (the heavily subsidized flood insurance).

  • Paul.||

    Here in New York we have a very busy government. It's worried about the kinds of fats we eat and the size of the soft drinks we buy, and there is no shortage of regulations affecting businesses, street vendors, and individuals. But in all this exciting fine tuning, nobody seems to have bothered to think about the much greater task of keeping floodwaters out of the subway system. [...]

    So who's this Walter Russel guy? Me likes him, at least based on this passage alone.

    I remember in the early days of Health Departments ramping up their zeal for contextual dangers such as too much salt, trans fats or just plain old bad habits which, after years of execution cause some chronic condition or another-- I remember saying that the problem I have about this shit is that health departments are supposed to be shutting down the Broad Street Pump. And with all the effort and mission creep into these new areas, we're building a national public health system which is going to be rife with experts well versed in the dangers of high salt intake, but will have no FUCKING idea what to do if a cholera epidemic breaks out.

  • JW||

    but will have no FUCKING idea what to do if a cholera epidemic breaks out.

    Oh, come on...they just ban the cholera, right?

  • John||

    It worked with bedbugs didn't it?

  • John||

    He is a professor. He writes at a blog called via Meadia. He is quite sharp. His writing on the failure of the Blue State model is excellent.

  • Archduke Pantsfan||

    If they failed to plan, why are they not in prison?
    -Pantsfan's Italian cousin

  • John||

    They can't even blame this on the weather forcasters. They told them it was coming.

  • The Hammer||

    Because they were smart enough to be the ones in charge of who goes to prison.

  • Archduke Pantsfan||

    Holy shit, 'Tony' actually hauled out 'TEH CHILDRENZ!!!1111!!!! justification. He has gone beyond self-parody.

    Can a sock puppet do that?

  • WTF||

    Can a sock puppet do that?

    Good point.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    "Analysts have been warning the (big) governments of New York for years that they should build more robust defenses against just this type of flood."

    Or maybe individuals should pay for this shit themselves instead of making everyone pay for it with taxes. Or live somewhere that isn't going to get wrecked by normal weather.

  • John||

    If you live in New York, I don't see why making you pay taxes to keep the city from flooding is such a bad thing. And New York didn't get wrecked. Shit happens. They will pump out the subway, fix the power and life will go on. Six months from now you will not able to tell this happened.

  • CE||

    But without FEMA, the city would be shut down forever.

  • Restoras||

    Except that the city uses tax monies for bullshit instead of flood planning. I'm guessing because the resulting campaign sloganeering is less likely to get the idiots re-elected.

  • Zeb||

    Indeed. Assuming that government should be building any infrastructure at all, protecting a major port city from flooding from storm surges is probably one of the things that they should be doing.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    Government should not be building any infrastructure at all, nor influencing land use.

  • T o n y||

    Natural disasters sure do bring out the stupid and crass here even more than usual. What's it like living in a constant state of playing a parlor game rather than having actual, practical thoughts? "How can we justify not having government for this... eh, fuck you, you deserve to die because you chose to live in the path of a hurricane."

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    Explain how FEMA, etc, will prevent someone in the path of a hurricane from dying.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-PA)||

    I mean, NOAA is one of the very limited uses I see for the fedgov, and I don't think anyone here is proposing that governments not issue warnings about approaching hurricanes.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    Weather monitoring is fine. It has a defense related purpose.

    Rescue operations are fine because they fit in to domestic military readiness that is usually idle. Police might as well be helpful, too.

    Fire departments, ambulances, and medical services should of course be private.

  • Restoras||

    Go take an extra rinse cycle, sockpuppet.

  • ||

    What's it like living in a constant state of playing a parlor game rather than having actual, practical thoughts?

    You tell us, you're the one in a position to know.

  • Skip||

    A big storm requires a big assfucking!

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