Katrina in Kentucky

What accounts for Obama's slow response to Kentucky's ice storm victims?


The ice storm that slammed the American mid-south in the last weekend of January and then moved onward to the East Coast has left an estimated 1.3 million people without power. And nowhere was hit harder than Kentucky, where some 700,000 people lost electricity and 24 deaths were attributed to the storm. Yet President Barack Obama only declared the state a major disaster area this week. What took so long? Where is the presidential compassion for the victims of this tremendous disaster?

The answer is that nothing is wrong and President Obama surely feels for each and every person hurt or put out by the storm. The reality is that even after the emergency management reforms allegedly implemented after Hurricane Katrina, help from far-off Washington still does little in times of fast-moving crisis. This view may be heresy in the age of federal bailouts, but it is still true.

To put the ice storm response in perspective, remember that it was not until the Clinton administration that the federal government was even expected to deal with winter storms. It took Clinton's shrewd Arkansas crowd to identify the political potential of turning states and localities into federal dependents via the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and related federal disaster assets. Soon enough state and local officials were petitioning Washington for any and all weather-related expenses. The result has been millions of dollars flowing out of Washington.

Of course it was Hurricane Katrina that truly redefined the scope of federal disaster response. Katrina quickly progressed from natural disaster to human tragedy to political hot potato, landing in the lap of the hapless Bush administration. The storyline quickly became not one of state and local disarray in the face of an oncoming storm, but federal incompetence, possibly—even probably—abetted by an ugly racial animosity against Katrina's victims. The great Beltway victimhood industry ate this version up, resulting in billions in "reconstruction" aid for the region and reform of FEMA. Problem solved.

How then to explain the continued hardship in Kentucky? About 150,000 residents remain without power. No power means that gas stations and water pumping stations do no work. Needless to say, 21st century communications cease to function. Cooking and refrigeration become a struggle. To borrow a frequent post-Katrina refrain, these Americans have been reduced to Third World–style subsistence living.

The state has now fully mobilized the National Guard and power line crews have poured in from neighboring states. But that has still not been enough. Local officials complain—in another echo of Katrina—that FEMA failed to even contact them in the days after the storm, let alone show up with help on the ground. FEMA responded that the same icy roads that put residents at peril slowed their emergency response crews. Just this week word came that some rural, overwhelmingly white parts of the state will not receive power for weeks, if not months.

Natural disasters arbitrarily bring death and destruction. They act beyond the control of mortal man and his institutions, no matter how grand and well-intentioned those institutions may be. Furthermore, the iron law of all disasters is that it is nearly impossible to get aid quickly to people in need. Two corollaries flow from this reality. One, that it is always better to evacuate potential victims than to attempt to rescue certain victims. This, of course, is precisely what did not happen in New Orleans or in the path of the ice storm. Two, given that outside help will be unreliable at best, local ad hoc relief efforts are almost always more effective.

Enter David Strange, the enterprising figure the Associated Press calls the "generator man." Strange drove the hills and hollows of backwoods Kentucky delivering and setting up generators to those without power—at a $50 to $100 mark-up over retail. Willing customers included a dialysis patient and a powerless 80-year-old woman dependent on an oxygen system. They called him a "godsend," although Strange prefers "jack of all trades" or even "hustler." To Adam Smith, he would be recognizable as an agent of the invisible hand.

If President Obama were nimble, he would give Strange a fancy federal title and take credit for his actions. That would make far more sense than trusting the federal government to come to the rescue in times of distress.

Jeff Taylor writes from North Carolina.