Natural Disasters

Government Should Get Out of the Way of Disaster Response

Here, as usual, the private sector outperforms the public sector.


The hurricane devastation is severe. What should the federal government do?

Give us lots of money, say many.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) demanded $150 billion—just for Texas.

So far, Congress has agreed to $15 billion in hurricane relief. But more will come.

Few Americans will object. The House vote for the first $7.9 billion was 419-3.

But let's take a breath. Why is rebuilding the federal government's responsibility?

Clearly, only the feds can send in the military and some other first responders. After Hurricane Irma, 13,000 National Guard soldiers from 22 states helped rescue and evacuate people. That's the kind of emergency response we expect from the federal government.

But rebuilding after storms?

Washington, D.C., has no money of its own. Anything it spends comes from states. And states and local governments know better than Washington how relief money might best be used. (Though Puerto Rico may be an exception, since its government is, as one entrepreneur put it, "inept and riddled with corruption.")

The idea that the federal government must lead in rebuilding is only a recent phenomenon, says the Cato Institute's Chris Edwards.

"Prior to recent decades," he writes, "private charitable groups and businesses have been central to disaster response."

In 1906, the massive San Francisco earthquake and fire that followed destroyed 80 percent of the city. Yet that tragedy "is remembered not just for the terrible destruction it caused, but also for the remarkably rapid rebuilding… The population recovered to pre-quake levels within just three years, and residents quickly rebuilt about 20,000 buildings."

The rebuilding was quick because it wasn't done by a cumbersome government bureaucracy. Rich people and companies donated labor and goods.

"Johnson and Johnson quickly loaded rail cars full of donated medical supplies and sent them to San Francisco," writes Edwards.

Also, "90 percent of San Francisco residents had fire insurance."

Today in America, even people who live on the edges of oceans don't buy insurance. "Why pay?" many think. "There probably won't be a problem, and if there is, government will step in."

The more the federal government intervenes, the more people come to rely on handouts.

Just seven years after the San Francisco earthquake, the Midwest was hit with a huge disaster now called the Great Easter Flood. Eleven states flooded. Rising water and tornadoes killed 600 people.

Many storm victims "refused disaster relief, to the point of hiding from aid workers," writes historian Trudy Bell. Even mayors turned away outside aid, and would then "boast that they had refused it." Why? "Because cultural norms against being seen as accepting charity were more powerful than the physical imperatives of health, welfare and recovery."

Those norms have changed.

That's one reason why private charity is also better than government aid. Charities are less likely to fund freeloaders.

After Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, Habitat for Humanity built 70 homes—quickly. Even the mayor admitted that charities did what his government didn't.

"Private sector does it better and quicker," he told me. "Not a lot of rules and regulations."

Part of this year's post-hurricane effort from Congress is a $7 billion grant to the Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Development Fund.

"Community Development" sounds nice, but HUD has squandered millions of dollars. HUD bureaucrats often give money to sketchy developers who just vanish.

The Washington Post reports, "In at least 55 cases, developers drew HUD money but left behind only barren lots."

Federal bureaucrats are the last people who ought to fund rebuilding. It would be cruel to cut people off unexpectedly in the middle of a crisis, but when the crisis is past, let's debate better ways of doing things.

As Daniel Rothschild of the Mercatus Center puts it, "Unfortunately, the scale of major disasters leads many people to conclude that only governments have the resources to deal with the aftermath. This could not be further from the truth. What makes sustainable rebound possible is the rebuilding of communities and the organizations that support them: businesses, civic groups, religious communities and nonprofits."



NEXT: A Massacre Is Not an Argument

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  1. The notion that money is the solution is just evidence of how screwed up things have gotten. Recovery ‘tasks’ are more about organized time/energy – not money. And if there is one thing that is common in every destroyed neighborhood, it is a whole bunch of people with a lot of time on their hands every day because workplaces have been destroyed and transportation has been impacted etc. The fastest – and cheapest – way to clean up is to self-organize and focus locally. Which is exactly how we Americans used to be able to fix things like this – with militia and other civic organization responsibilities helping to prepare/train people ahead of time so that they could self-organize effectively. Money is then only needed for raw materials and commodities.

    1. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

      This is what I do…

  2. Those norms have changed.

    Yeah, no kidding.

  3. Strange that you don’t point out when it changed.

    that would be during Katrina, when the dems decided it was good political policy to use the storm aftermath to bludgeon Bush for the next 3 years, notably providing cover for the deep-blue governor and mayor who failed remarkably. Prior to Katrina, FEMA was never expected to be the first response group, in charge of all rebuilding, or the purveyor of all recovery efforts. FEMA was nothing more then a backstop for local/state emergency management efforts and the first line for localities/states to tap into Federal stockpiles/coffers when necessary.
    Then, of course, during Sandy and the mid-west floods, FEMA became secondary again because it wasn’t politically expedient as leverage against Obama. Now we see the return of “the feds must do everything” criteria solely to bash Trump over PR. It’s good to see many of the people on the ground in PR are having none of that.

    1. It changed in 1935, when Social Security started. It became acceptable to take a government handout, because you “paid in.”

  4. but if you don’t want the government to do it, that means you don’t want it done at all, you heartless bastard

    / leftist

  5. Clearly, only the feds can send in the military and some other first responders. After Hurricane Irma, 13,000 National Guard soldiers from 22 states helped rescue and evacuate people. That’s the kind of emergency response we expect from the federal government.

    The “National” Guard is really 50 state militias. The governor of each state can call them up in a disaster. The Feds aren’t needed even for this.

  6. I don’t even mind Federal money being spent for disaster relief. Compared to the stupid shit most Federal spending goes to, restoring infranstructure, sanitation, shelter is all good stuff. But I don’t want to see a single cent go to rebuilding homes in known flood or hurricane risk areas.

    1. I’d add to that list: not a single cent to corrupt, indolent, banana-republic shitholes like Puerto Rico. Over a third of Puerto Ricans are on welfare. Some estimates have 70% of PRians on housing assistance. A 2010 USDA report “acknowledged” that Puerto Ricans spend their block-grant food stamp money on “things other than food.” PR parasites are getting enough of my money; they’re a model case study of gov’t-engineered dependency, and it’s time the government tit was plucked from their lips. Their unemployment rate is in the double digits. They can take all that free time they have on their hands and fix their own power, FFS.

  7. RE: Government Should Get Out of the Way of Disaster Relief: New at Reason

    If you want your property fucked up, leave it to Mother Nature.
    If you want your life fucked up, leave it to Big Government.

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