On August 29, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Louisiana coast, directly devastating several coastal towns and flooding the city of New Orleans, whose levees were not strong enough to withstand the water. In the days that followed, over a thousand people died. Looting broke out in the sunken city, and evacuees were directed to the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center, where the authorities proved themselves unable to cope with the hungry, thirsty, and sometimes violent crowds. Americans were horrified by both the damage wrought by the weather and the stunning incompetence of the local, state, and federal response.
If a single moment defined that first week, it came on September 1, as thousands of people found themselves stranded at the convention center without food and water. They had been gathering there for days, and the media had been covering them almost from the beginning; some starving refugees had died right in front of the reporters. And Michael Brown, then-chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told CNN's Paula Zahn that "the federal government did not even know about the convention center people until today."
Yet no government screwup is so colossal that it can't be used to justify yet more government. For most liberals, Katrina merely proved that Washington needs more resources to prevent and respond to such disasters; for many conservatives, it proved that society is a fragile construct that can collapse into chaos at any moment, and that only police or military force can hold it together in times of stress. As the following six reports reveal, those positions hardly exhaust the range of possible responses to the disaster and its aftermath.
Nightmare in New Orleans
Do disasters destroy social cooperation?
People couldn't help contrasting the catastrophes. During the first disaster, New Yorkers remained calm, cooperative, and nonviolent; the crime rate plunged, and the city was overwhelmed with spontaneous acts of mutual aid. In the second emergency, the most basic social bonds seemed to disintegrate. As Newsweek put it, "the night was alight with fires, the pavement was alive with looters."
If you compare 9/11 with Hurricane Katrina, you'll provoke protests: Osama's attacks were awful, your critics will say, but they hit only one part of Manhattan and they left most of the city's infrastructure unscathed. But the two disasters I'm describing are the New York blackouts of 1965 and 1977. The first knocked out far more of the grid than the second, but communal ties seemed to strengthen rather than fray. The latter, by contrast, set off 25 hours of arson, looting, and chaos. The most striking quote in that Newsweek piece came from a rioter in Harlem. "We made a mistake in '65," he said. "But we're going to clean up in '77."
When disaster strikes, the results usually look a lot more like '65 than '77. The civic breakdown we saw in New Orleans is extremely atypical, not just next to smaller-scale emergencies such as 9/11 but next to some of the worst natural and technological catastrophes of recent history. "In the more modern, developed countries, looting is not a problem after disasters," says the sociologist E.L. Quarantelli, a co-founder of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware and one of the pioneers of the field. There are "some exceptions," he adds, but they're "very rare." More than a half-century of investigation has established a fairly firm pattern: After the cataclysm, volunteerism will explode, violence will be rare, looting will appear only under exceptional circumstances, and the vast majority of the rescues will be accomplished by the real first responders–the victims themselves.
• When an earthquake hit Tanghsan, China, in 1976, it was "probably the worst peacetime disaster of the century," writes Erik Auf der Heide, a medical officer with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in his contribution to the 2004 book The First 72 Hours: A Community Approach to Disaster Preparedness. About 250,000 people were killed, and almost every building in the city was destroyed–but "200,000 to 300,000 victims rescued themselves and then carried out 80% of the rescue of others." Such proportions were neither an aberration nor peculiar to earthquakes: Auf der Heide cites similar patterns following flash floods, tornadoes, and a deadly gas explosion.
• The Kobe quake of 1995, which killed 6,279 people, produced a reaction that was–to quote "Emergency Response: Lessons Learned from the Kobe Earthquake," a 1997 paper by Kathleen Tierney and James D. Goltz–"without precedent in Japanese society." Although volunteerism isn't nearly as widespread in Japan as it is in the United States, "most search and rescue was undertaken by community residents; officially-designated rescue agencies such as fire departments and the Self Defense Forces were responsible for recovering at most one quarter of those trapped in collapsed structures. Spontaneous volunteering and emergent group activity were very widespread throughout the emergency period; community residents provided a wide range of goods and services to their fellow earthquake victims, and large numbers of people traveled from other parts of the country to offer aid." Quarantelli says there wasn't a single authenticated case of looting.
• After the San Francisco quake of 1989, Stewart Brand wrote in Whole Earth Review that "volunteer rescuers in San Francisco's Marina District…outnumbered professionals three-to-one during the critical first few hours." (Although, he added, "it still wasn't enough.") According to Auf der Heide, most of the tremor's fatalities followed the collapse of the Cypress Expressway, and the rescue operation that followed was led by self-organizing samaritans. "These volunteers, coming from residences and businesses in the neighborhood or passing by on the street and freeway, performed some of the first rescues of trapped motorists," the Oakland Fire Department acknowledged in its earthquake report. "Using makeshift ladders, ropes, and even the trees planted beside the freeway, these volunteers scrambled up onto the broken structure to render first aid and help the injured and dazed to safety."
When looting does follow a disaster, most of it is done covertly by individuals or small groups snatching something when they think no one's looking, not by mobs acting openly. Half a century of research has revealed only four American exceptions: during the blackout of 1977; in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands following Hurricane Hugo in 1989; in and around Homestead, Florida, after Hurricane Andrew in 1992; and in New Orleans this year.
What happened after Hugo seemed so unusual that Quarantelli visited the island three times to investigate the chain of events. If you followed the news from New Orleans, the variables at work in St. Croix should sound familiar.
First, says Quarantelli, "it's a tourist area, and one thing that stood out is that the tourists that come there are very wealthy, while the native population is very, very poor." Second, "there's an underclass that engages in a lot of petty crime," and it includes juvenile gangs who launched the looting and "in a sense were simply acting on a larger scale than they normally do." Third, the police department was "ineffective, corrupt, and full of nepotism," and many officers joined in the larceny themselves. Put those factors together with the massive impact of the hurricane and the relative isolation of the island, and you had a recipe for riots.
Indeed, while events in New York, St. Croix, Homestead, and New Orleans differ radically from the usual behavior seen after catastrophes, they do resemble the sort of angry urban disorder that emerges not from without but from within. "In riots," explains Quarantelli, "looting is overt, it's socially supported, it's engaged in by almost everyone, and also it's targeted looting, in the sense that people break into alcohol stores and drug stores and things of that kind." That, he discovered, is what happened in St. Croix, and it is largely what occurred in the other three examples as well. "You could make the argument," he says of the '77 blackout, "that what happened there was less a technological disaster than simply the breakout of another riot": another Watts in another long, hot summer. The disparity between '77 and '65 reflected different social and economic conditions, just as St. Croix broke out in looting while other places battered by Hugo–Puerto Rico, the Carolinas–maintained social order.
"But even that's got to be put in context," Quarantelli concludes. "When all is said and done, while people paid attention to the looting and it certainly did occur, the pro-social behavior [in St. Croix] far outweighed the anti-social behavior." In fact, in every disaster he's studied, "the height of the emergency is when people are nicest to one another." In St. Croix, residents rescued their neighbors, gave shelter to the homeless, and shared their supplies; even the looting itself was often a matter of desperate but nonviolent citizens taking survival necessities, not gangs seizing luxury goods. (It's not even clear that it's properly theft to take, say, food that's bound to spoil before its owner can return to reclaim it.) Rumors of murders, armed robbery, and the like generally turned out to be unverified, exaggerated, or simply inaccurate.
In New Orleans there were some genuine firsthand accounts of violent assaults, but the rumor mill worked overtime as well. Meanwhile, we also heard stories of spontaneous cooperation on the ground–notably the heroic tales of Deamonte Love, the 6-year-old boy who led five toddlers and a baby out of the flood zone, and Jabbar Gibson, the young man who commandeered an abandoned school bus, drove it to Houston with around 70 people aboard, and arrived there well in advance of the official convoy. The Baltimore Sun described a group of about 40 people who turned the Samuel J. Green Charter School into a well-supplied, well-fed, well-protected little republic. The New Orleans Times-Picayune recounted how a neighborhood association in Algiers Point formed a "makeshift militia" to protect the area. Rolling Stone talked to civilians in motorboats who spent days ferrying flood victims to dry land, rescuing far more people than the authorities did during the first week that followed the storm. Neighbors saved neighbors from the rising waters, volunteers patrolled their communities, and evacuees who owned vehicles gave lifts to people who didn't. Quarantelli is almost certain we'll learn that such cooperation and initiative greatly outnumbered the widely reported crimes.
There was one additional factor in Katrina that wasn't present in the other cases: what Quarantelli calls "the worst mishandled disaster I've ever seen in my life, and I've been studying disasters since 1949." The full story of what went wrong has yet to be fully uncovered, but it seems more and more clear that, far from working closely with volunteers and rival authorities, the Department of Homeland Security–the giant new bureaucracy that absorbed the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2003–adopted a command-and-control approach that at times worked actively against the other responses. Anecdotes abound not just of well-qualified civilians being turned away from the disaster zone but of public employees being poorly deployed, such as the 1,400 firefighters who were assigned to do community relations work. Worst of all were the squalid holding camps at the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center, where authority was omnipresent but order was absent.
The local government clearly botched the initial evacuation of New Orleans, leaving hundreds of empty buses to drown while carless citizens were stranded, but a deeper problem with the exodus might be the local initiative that was blocked. Fred Smith, the president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and, more to the point, a native Louisianan who monitored events there as closely as he could, says: "There were avenues in and out of the city–people could have been enlisted to come into the city to make pickups, and the problem could have been alleviated much earlier. America has cars and boats and buses and vans, but they weren't called on. In World War I, Paris was saved because taxis rushed French troops to the front. Why couldn't New Orleans have done the same?"
The most appalling allegations come from the leftist activists Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky, who were attending a conference of emergency medical services workers in New Orleans when the hurricane struck. Their widely circulated story is a litany both of inspiring self-organization on the ground and of astonishing official mistreatment and neglect. Among other things, they claim that a police officer broke up their embarrassingly situated encampment–it was adjacent to the command station–by falsely telling them that buses were waiting for them on the other side of the Greater New Orleans Bridge. They also wrote that armed officers then blocked them from entering Mississippi on foot. (The latter allegation has been corroborated by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Fox News, among other outlets.)
At that point, they say, some of them took direct action:
"Our little encampment began to blossom. Someone stole a water delivery truck and brought it up to us. Let's hear it for looting! A mile or so down the freeway, an Army truck lost a couple of pallets of C-rations on a tight turn. We ferried the food back to our camp in shopping carts.
"Now–secure with these two necessities, food and water–cooperation, community and creativity flowered. We organized a clean-up and hung garbage bags from the rebar poles. We made beds from wood pallets and cardboard. We designated a storm drain as the bathroom, and the kids built an elaborate enclosure for privacy out of plastic, broken umbrellas and other scraps. We even organized a food-recycling system where individuals could swap out parts of C-rations (applesauce for babies and candies for kids!).
"This was something we saw repeatedly in the aftermath of Katrina. When individuals had to fight to find food or water, it meant looking out for yourself. You had to do whatever it took to find water for your kids or food for your parents. But when these basic needs were met, people began to look out for each other, working together and constructing a community."
I can't vouch for their account, but I can attest to that final point. People do look out for each other in emergencies, even when other social bonds begin to break. The best response to a disaster will embrace that fact. The worst will work against it.
Managing Editor Jesse Walker (email@example.com) is author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).
Defenseless on the Bayou
New Orleans gun confiscation was foolish and illegal.
During the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the government of New Orleans devolved from its traditional status as an elective kleptocracy into something far more dangerous: an "anarcho-tyranny" that refused to protect the public from criminals while preventing people from protecting themselves. On the orders of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, the New Orleans Police Department, the National Guard, the Oklahoma National Guard, and the U.S. Marshals Service began breaking into homes at gunpoint, confiscating lawfully owned firearms, and evicting the residents. "No one is allowed to be armed," said P. Edwin Compass III, the superintendent of police. "We're going to take all the guns."
Those thousands of New Orleanians huddled in the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center got a taste of anarcho-tyranny. Everyone entering those buildings was searched for firearms. So for a few days, they lived in a small world without guns. As in other such worlds, the weaker soon became the prey of the stronger.
In the rest of the city, some police officers abandoned their posts, while others joined the looting spree. For several days, the ones who stayed on the job did not act to stop the looting that was going on right in front of them. When homes or businesses were saved, the saviors were the many good citizens of New Orleans who defended them with their own firearms.
These people were operating within their legal rights. The law authorizes citizen's arrests for any felony, and in the 1964 case McKellar v. Mason a Louisiana court held that shooting a property thief in the spine was a legitimate citizen's arrest.
The aftermath of the hurricane featured prominent stories of citizens defending lives and property. Most of New Orleans lies on the north side of the Mississippi River, while the neighborhood of Algiers is on the south. The Times-Picayune detailed how dozens of neighbors in one part of Algiers had formed a militia. After a carjacking and an attack on a home by looters, the neighborhood recognized the need for a common defense; residents shared firearms, took turns on patrol, and guarded the elderly. Although the initial looting had resulted in a gun battle, once the patrols began the militia never had to fire a shot. Likewise, the Garden District of New Orleans, one of the city's top tourist attractions, was protected by armed residents.
The good gun-owning citizens of New Orleans and the surrounding areas should have been thanked for helping to save some of their city after Mayor Nagin, incoherent and weeping, had fled. Yet instead these citizens were victimized by a new round of home invasions and looting, these government-organized, for the purpose of firearms confiscation.
The mayor and Gov. Kathleen Blanco do have the legal authority to mandate evacuation, but failure to comply is a misdemeanor; so the authority to use force to compel evacuation goes no further than the power to effect a misdemeanor arrest. The pre-emptive confiscation of every private firearm in the city far exceeded any reasonable attempt to carry out misdemeanor arrests for persons who disobey orders to leave.
Louisiana statutory law does allow some restrictions on firearms during extraordinary conditions. One statute says that after the governor proclaims a state of emergency (as Blanco did), "the chief law enforcement officer of the political subdivision affected by the proclamation may…promulgate orders…regulating and controlling the possession, storage, display, sale, transport and use of firearms, other dangerous weapons and ammunition." But the statute does not, and could not, supersede the Louisiana Constitution, which declares that "the right of each citizen to keep and bear arms shall not be abridged, but this provision shall not prevent the passage of laws to prohibit the carrying of weapons concealed on the person."
The power of "regulating and controlling" is not the same as the power of "prohibiting and controlling." The emergency statute actually draws this distinction in its language, which refers to "prohibiting" price gouging, sale of alcohol, and curfew violations but only to "regulating and controlling" firearms. Accordingly, the police superintendent's order "prohibiting" firearms possession was beyond his lawful authority. It was an illegal order.
A week after the confiscations began, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Second Amendment Foundation (SAF) filed a joint lawsuit in federal court. The parties were represented by Stephen Halbrook, one of the nation's leading Second Amendment attorneys. (Documents from the suit can be found at stephenhalbrook.com.)
Attorneys for Orleans Parish (New Orleans) and St. Tammany Parish (which also confiscated guns) capitulated, under the judge's threat that he would issue a preliminary injunction against them. The parishes and the plaintiffs signed a consent decree in which the parishes asserted (implausibly) that there was never an official government policy of confiscating guns, and also admitted that they had no authorization to confiscate guns pursuant to Louisiana's emergency powers statute. The parties agreed to accept that the court's injunction forbids them from confiscating guns, and orders them to return all guns which have been confiscated.
There will doubtless be many lawsuits that will seek to discover precisely which uniformed looters were responsible for the theft of which guns. (Like the other looters, the uniformed thieves did not give their victims receipts. ) And all over the country next year, there will be bills introduced in state legislatures to make sure that emergency powers cannot be abused to confiscate guns when good people need them most.
After Katrina struck, we saw an awful truth in New Orleans: There is no shortage of police officers and National Guardsmen who will illegally threaten peaceful citizens at gunpoint and confiscate their firearms. We also saw some noble truths: that citizens with firearms will defend law and order even when the government fails. And that our federal courts, as well as civil rights organizations such as NRA and SAF, continue to play an important role in defending constitutional rights against the depredations of lawless "law enforcement" officers.
Dave Kopel (firstname.lastname@example.org) is research director of the Independence Institute.
Escape From FEMAville
Housing evacuees is no job for the feds.
Before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina, federal and local authorities proved incapable of reacting to dire predictions of destruction, learning from previous catastrophes, or letting more capable organizations lend a hand. An agency led largely by public relations executives rather than emergency management personnel, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, botched even the one disaster it should have been able to cope with: a P.R. nightmare. On September 4, FEMA Director Michael Brown (who resigned eight days later) said the agency was "pulling out all the stops" for its next task, temporary housing.
Not surprisingly, FEMA caught flak for moving slowly on housing as well. But if the history of centralized refugee housing is any indication, the agency's sloth may help more than it harms. FEMA said shelter would take the form of trailers, military bases, and at least four cruise ships. In interviews with The New York Times, Freedom Tower planner Daniel Libeskind suggested a "low-cost modular shelter" he'd designed, and architect Shigeru Ban pitched temporary housing made of cardboard tubes and plastic beer crates.
This is bad. There are few surer ways to make people sick, hopeless, and helpless than to pack them into camp-like conditions for an indefinite period. Katrina's displaced persons are not technically "refugees" (as the law defines the term), and there's a levee-sized space between any international refugee and a New Orleans native waiting for his home to emerge from five feet of toxic water. But current international practices are a how-to guide for turning temporary refugee situations into interminable hellholes.
"Warehousing" is the risk aid workers run when they throw up ad hoc housing with no clear plan to dismantle it. Merrill Smith, editor of World Refugee Survey, published by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), defines it as "the practice of keeping refugees in protracted situations of restricted mobility, enforced idleness, and dependency–their lives on indefinite hold." For refugees in Africa and Asia during the last 20 years, the transition from camp to resettlement has taken longer than at any point in history. To some extent, this is a result of donors' pouring aid into camps rather than integration, keeping refugees contained rather than compensating host countries for absorbing them. Smith describes the change as a shift from "viewing refugees as agents of democracy to seeing them as passive aid recipients."
The results are ugly, as USCRI documents. Throwing refugees together spreads disease, engenders mental health problems, and creates security issues. Camp security has a tendency to turn militant, and authoritarian law enforcement can lead to a "fatalistic paralysis" that makes starting over harder and harder to imagine as time passes. Worst of all, isolation prevents displaced people from forming the social networks that help them spring back. It's tough to hunt for a job when you're packed in with thousands of other homeless, unemployed, increasingly passive people.
Temporary housing goes up faster than it comes down. Abroad, host governments develop bureaucracies that depend on an inflow of aid destined for refugee camps; some camps in Africa have endured for decades. Here in the U.S., mobile homes set up after last year's Hurricane Charley still fill a corner of Punta Gorda; the village has been dubbed "FEMA City." In a September 7 Slate piece on the history of emergency housing, Witold Rybczynski observes that "relief can be the enemy of reconstruction." He's talking about homes and sidewalks, but the wrong kind of relief can keep people from reconstructing their lives as well.
Following the lawlessness of Katrina's immediate aftermath, some shelters turned uncomfortably authoritarian. Reporting from a community college turned shelter in Colorado, The Denver Post described "roadblocks, security guards and enough armed police officers to invade Grenada." Reporters spoke to storm survivors through a fence. Anecdotal reports tell of authorities restricting freedom of movement and keeping evacuees from so much as cooking their own food.
What's the alternative? Consider how we treat actual refugees here. The U.S. absorbs tens of thousands of displaced people every year. We do not stick them on cruise ships or ask famous architects to build cardboard houses for them. Instead, they enter a nexus of volunteer, religious, mutual aid, and ethnic organizations. Private organizations help match immigrants to mentors, and church groups collect clothes and food. The federal government provides cash for at least a few months, but civil society helps people form support networks that will get them clothed, housed, employed, and rooted in a community. That partnership isn't a panacea, but it's no Superdome either.
Shortly after the disaster, The Washington Post ran a story about Anya Maddox, a New Orleans native who barricaded herself in during the storm, swam to a friend's house, caught a ride out of town, and talked her way into a job at a Louisiana Waffle House. "I'm a survivor," she told the Post. Maddox may not realize it, but her triumph was twofold: She eluded both the wrath of a deadly storm and the good intentions of those who would help her recover.
Kerry Howley (email@example.com) is an assistant editor of Reason.
Is Katrina the beginning of a trend?
Since the beginning of the 20th century, the average number of deaths per year from hurricanes in the United States has been falling. Katrina's rising death toll may have interrupted that positive trend.
Indur Goklany, the assistant director for science and technology policy at the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Policy Analysis, provides data showing that more than 800 Americans per year lost their lives to hurricanes between 1900 and 1909. A huge portion of those deaths occurred because of the devastating hurricane that killed more than 8,000 people in Galveston, Texas, in 1900. The next highest hurricane death toll occurred between 1920 and 1929, when an average of 253 Americans per year were killed by hurricanes. This number was substantially boosted by a single devastating storm, the Lake Okeechobee hurricane of 1928, in which between 1,700 and 2,300 people lost their lives. Somewhat reminiscent of Katrina's devastation, the hundreds drowned by the 1928 hurricane perished because dikes holding the lake failed.
Nevertheless, since 1930 the average annual number of deaths from hurricanes has been declining more or less steadily, reaching a low of only 13 deaths per year in the 1980s. Goklany shows that the annual death rate per million people also has been falling, sinking to an annual low of only nine deaths per million last decade. The last single hurricane that killed more than 100 Americans was Hurricane Agnes in 1972. This happy trend occurred even though an estimated 50 million additional residents have moved to coastal regions during the last 25 years.
Prior to Katrina, it could reasonably be argued that declining mortality rates from hurricanes in the U.S. were the result of better long-range warning systems, sturdier houses, improved roads, comprehensive evacuation planning, and high-quality hospitals. So why did all this fail when Katrina struck? Is Katrina a fluke, or is it possible that government programs are in fact making us less safe?
The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency encourages people to live in harm's way. As of 2004, the NFIP had issued more than 4.4 million flood insurance policies in approximately 20,000 communities nationwide, representing nearly $637 billion in coverage. Since it was established in 1969, the program has paid $12.7 billion in flood insurance claims and related costs. In recent years, the NFIP has collected $1.1 billion in premiums and paid out around $1 billion in damages each year. Currently, the NFIP has about $1.1 billion in reserves; estimates are that the program will have to pay out more than $10 billion in claims for the houses and businesses destroyed by Katrina. People should be told that this is the last time the federal government will pay flood insurance claims to owners in areas prone to flooding. If private insurers want to take the risk, then their stockholders, not taxpayers, will be on the hook.
Let's set aside the larger question of whether the government should be encouraging people to live below sea level. The fact is that the federal government, which is in charge of all navigable waterways, failed to provide adequate infrastructure to prevent the inundation of a city that was home to nearly half a million people. Having taken the responsibility on itself, it failed to deliver on its promise–and it did so for built-in institutional reasons. The failure of the levees protecting New Orleans and other parts of southern Louisiana perfectly illustrates the fact that politicians generally engage in short-term thinking. Merely maintaining or bolstering some boring old levees will not garner many votes. But the senators and representatives who bring home the most tax dollars for restoring New Orleans and the Gulf Coast will become heroes.
The U.S. Congress established the Mississippi River Commission in 1879 to oversee and implement plans to improve navigation and prevent floods. But levee building for flood control in the Mississippi basin remained largely under local and state control until 1917, when the feds took over completely. Until then, states and counties formed levee districts that taxed local citizens for levee construction and maintenance. Local control meant that the people who lived by the levees had to pay for the risks of doing so. In the modern era, instead of taxing local citizens to take care of levees known to be inadequate, New Orleans' political leaders waited for federal money that never came.
Once the hurricane struck, the government got in the way of groups that were poised to offer immediate help. Red Cross officials complained that their volunteers were prevented from helping people in New Orleans on orders from the Louisiana Department of Homeland Security and the National Guard. Federal and state officials claim they prevented relief efforts because they were worried for the safety of volunteers. It is true that New Orleans experienced some lawlessness, but perhaps a lot of that could have been forestalled if effective Red Cross and other relief efforts had begun immediately to alleviate the misery of people stuck at the Superdome and the convention center. If the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the Baptist Missions, or any other competent group wants to take the risk of helping disaster victims, the government should not stand in its way.
What about the future? The bad news is that a natural 30-year lull in the frequency of Atlantic hurricanes apparently has come to an end. As National Hurricane Center researchers note in a recent technical memorandum, "The decreased death totals in recent years could be as much a result of lack of major hurricanes striking the most vulnerable areas as they are of any fail-proof forecasting, warning, and observing systems." The memo adds: "If warnings are heeded and preparedness plans developed, the death toll can be reduced. In the absence of a change of attitude, policy, or laws governing building practices near the ocean, however, large property losses are inevitable."
After Katrina, it's clear which policies need to change.
It's time for the feds to stop offering flood insurance. It's time for local citizens to take more responsibility for constructing and maintaining the infrastructure that protects them and their property. And it's time for government agencies to stop interfering with private disaster relief efforts.
Ronald Bailey (firstname.lastname@example.org), reason's science correspondent, is the author of Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution (Prometheus).
You Don't Save What You Don't Own
Disaster amplifies the private-public incentive divide.
Jeff A. Taylor
Let's conduct a little thought experiment. The laboratory stretches from ground zero in Louisiana hundreds of miles up the East Coast, along crippled gasoline supply lines. What if the buses in New Orleans had been privately owned, and the gasoline supply had been a nationalized, government-run quasi-utility?
We know that New Orleans' infamous municipal and school buses were left to be destroyed at the very instant they were needed most. More than 400 were left idle when they should have been pulled back to higher ground for use in those tense days after Katrina hit.
Had there been a futures market on buses in New Orleans, the value of the buses would have skyrocketed as Katrina approached, signaling their increased utility in the emergency. But even without such an overt market signal, any private owner of the vehicles would have exhausted all opportunities to save his or her property. Nobody who owned such a potentially valuable product would have done what New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin did: let it all go to waste, on the assumption that drivers would be impossible to find. Greyhound, after all, did not leave hundreds of its buses to be destroyed. This very fact caused Nagin to scream for "every doggone Greyhound bus line in the country" to come to the aid of his city. And it should go without saying that no private employer would long tolerate a work force that, in Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu's memorable description of New Orleans public sector workers, has trouble coming to work even on sunny days.
Now to the flip side. Gasoline prices are nothing but one big futures market, constantly transmitting both the current value and the expected replacement cost of the stuff to consumers. Would a government-run monopoly have permitted prices to zoom past $3 a gallon, reflecting both reduced refining capacity along the Gulf and, more important, power outages on key gasoline pipelines to the East? Or would a government decree have muted this powerful conservation signal to everyone on the supply chain? Judging from the hysterical raving about "price gouging," there is little question that a system of rationing and price controls would have been instituted, thereby guaranteeing long, costly lines to get gas and quite likely an exhaustion of the limited supply as consumers bought too much gas at artificially low prices.
Although craven politicians refuse to see this, the long-term profit-maximizing route for private gasoline production seems to be to try to spread out a constrained supply for as long as possible until something like full capacity is available. In other words, distributors raise prices enough to deter sales, not to "gouge" people. As supply dwindled nearly to exhaustion in some markets, wholesale "over-allocation" fees kicked in. These were intended to discourage one or two distributors from buying up the remaining supply. Try to "corner" the market in gas, and you'll pay an extra 50 cents a gallon. Clueless consumer groups predictably screamed bloody murder about the surcharge, heedless of how this pricing mechanism helped save and spread out a scarce supply and ensure consumers would have some gas to buy at some price.
The motive for the surcharge policy is plain; it has little to do with being "fair" to consumers in the sense that politicians use the word. The worst of all possible worlds is for a gas station to sell out of product. Among other things, it means its door will no longer be darkened by potential customers for the other high-margin merchandise it sells–milk, beer, bread, bottled water. A station owner would much rather sell several thousand gallons less over a few days than eat everything on his store shelves while leaving a permanent impression on customers that he is an unreliable supplier of a vital good. These incentives push the private gasoline owners to conserve their supplies in times of crisis. How do you conserve? By raising the price.
As the public-sector tab for Katrina's clean-up climbs, fans of big government will point to the billions in loans and grants as proof of the value of a robust state. The costs of that same state –and its institutional disinclination to save billions–will be forgotten along with those soggy New Orleans buses.
Jeff A. Taylor (email@example.com) writes the weekly e-mail newsletter Reason Express.
A Flood of Red Ink
Katrina's fiscal fallout
Shelley Moore Capito is worried about Hurricane Katrina's fiscal implications. "We don't want to turn rebuilding the Big Easy into the Big Dig," the Republican representative from West Virginia told the Los Angeles Times in September, referring to Boston's notoriously bloated underground highway project. She said the reconstruction effort "is going to require efficiency, which is not something synonymous with the federal government."
Capito herself illustrated the reason Congress cannot be trusted to spend our money wisely when she was asked if she'd be willing to help fund Katrina aid by giving up West Virginia's share of the $25 billion in pork-barrel spending authorized by this year's transportation bill–one target on a list of cuts proposed by the Republican Study Committee, the last bastion of fiscal conservatives in the House. "I don't like that idea," she confessed. "It took three years to get it done. It's a jobs bill."
Nor does Capito like the idea of delaying the new Medicare prescription drug benefit by a year, which the committee estimates would save $31 billion. "I worked hard for that," she said. "It took a lot of time and effort to squeeze it through."
Capito and her colleagues in Congress are all for fiscal responsibility in theory. They're only against it in practice, when it impairs their ability to buy votes with taxpayers' money.
In this case, as with the rest of the money it has been working so hard to spend since George W. Bush was elected, Congress is taking its cues from the president. First he unveiled a grandiose post-Katrina reconstruction plan, promising not only to restore New Orleans but to make it "better and stronger" than ever. The next day, he belatedly mentioned "cutting other programs" but also said reconstruction will "cost whatever it costs."
With preliminary estimates in the area of $200 billion, that blithe attitude is not exactly reassuring. Neither is the 35 percent increase in discretionary spending over which Bush presided in his first term; or his proud advocacy of unnecessary, unconstitutional budget busters such as the Medicare drug benefit and the No Child Left Behind Act; or his record of zero vetoes in five years.
Our president is very generous with other people's money. Worse, he is generous with the money of people who are in no position to object, either because they are too young or because they haven't been born yet.
Heritage Foundation budget analyst Brian Riedl estimates the federal deficit, which was projected to be $331 billion this year before Katrina hit, will rise to $500 billion in 2008 and $873 billion in 2015, largely due to hurricane relief and reconstruction, together with spending in Iraq and Afghanistan. Riedl cautions that "even these estimates could prove overly optimistic."
Without serious spending cuts, Bush's promise of no tax hikes is a fraud. Taxes will go up, since ultimately that's the only way to finance federal spending. It's just a question of when. Either the burden will be imposed on current taxpayers (and the repercussions felt by current politicians), or it will be dumped on our children and grandchildren.
Given this context, it was hard to know whether to laugh or cry when House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) announced that there's no fat left to cut in the budget because "we've pared it down pretty good." At the same time, DeLay made a promise to anyone who managed the impossible feat of finding expendable items in the $2.6 trillion federal budget: "Bring me the offsets. I'll be glad to do it."
Several groups took up the challenge. Off the tops of their heads, two analysts at the Cato Institute came up with enough cuts to cover the $62 billion already authorized for Katrina relief. Taxpayers for Common Sense somehow found $144 billion in fat that DeLay missed. Heritage concluded that "a renewed war on wasteful spending could easily save $100 billion or more a year." The Republican Study Committee proposed cuts that would save $370 billion over five years.
DeLay was no more serious about fiscal responsibility than Shelley Moore Capito. Like her, he cited the jobs "created" by federal spending as reason enough to support it (especially in his district)–a rationale that would justify paying people to dig holes and fill them in again. At least such a project would be preferable to digging holes deeper and deeper, which is the work of Congress.