Politics & Policy

The Federal Government Is Ill-Equipped to Handle Natural Disasters

Flooding ing Ascension Paris, La., August 15, 2016. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Bachman)
Louisiana is proving that communities offer a more effective response to disasters.

Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,800 people in 2005 and caused more than $148 billion in damages. The storm and attendant floods left 600,000 families homeless, undercut power to 3 million homes, and damaged or destroyed 1.2 million others. It painted an indelible picture of government helplessness, as images of suffering residents went around the country and around the world. It also reshaped the landscape of New Orleans: Nine years later, the city still has only 78 percent of its pre-storm population.

Beyond all the natural devastation, Katrina is perhaps best remembered as a politically devastating event, in particular for the Bush presidency. In his own memoir, George W. Bush wrote that, “The legacy of fall 2005 lingered for the rest of my time in office.” Indeed, one could argue the popular perception of Bush’s failed response to the tragedy lingers to this day.

Katrina, in its power and ferocity, is the single greatest reminder of the limitations of government. State and local reactions were abysmal. The delays in evacuating the city were extremely costly. Officials lacked the means to communicate with one another in emergencies, and basic tasks typically assigned to state and local officials were left to federal responders. To make matters worse, both Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin – later sentenced to ten years in prison for accepting bribes from city contractors – were clearly out of their depth.

The basic failures at the state and local level during Katrina and its aftermath placed a heavier burden on the federal government. Federal officials evacuated hundreds of thousands of residents, but it was not nearly enough. The decision to allow federal troops was late in coming, and once citizens were whisked to safer ground, the logistical support and basic humanitarian comforts they needed were glaringly lacking.

Was anything learned? Today, over a decade later, we are seeing a much more resilient Louisiana react to recent flooding that has killed at least 13 people and displaced tens of thousands from their homes. To be sure, President Obama has declared disaster zones, freeing up federal-response money for people in the affected area. And, when done with his vacation, he did visit the area. The visit also took place only after Donald Trump seized the limelight by visiting first, garnering rare positive media attention for the GOP nominee.

But the federal response is not the focus of attention in the current crisis, because state and local leaders appear to have learned some important lessons over the course of the last decade. Republican representative Garret Graves has praised local communities who are “filling the void” in their response to the flood. Federal action, he noted, is only a “complement [to] some of the efforts our community is doing, our local and state governments.”

States and localities that are more likely to be affected by natural disasters should strive for more autonomy over disaster-preparedness and response measures.

One group in particular is proving that action at the community level – by what Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville called “little platoons” – is the most effective solution to local problems: Baton Rouge’s “Cajun Navy.” This impromptu group of boat-mounted community members has been working steadily to rescue residents still trapped by the flood waters and, as of this week, had rescued hundreds if not thousands of people. Many of its members are flood victims themselves, using duck-hunting boats repurposed for community-driven search-and-rescue missions, despite dangerous water conditions. Of course, the state is now considering regulating them, leading Navy member Dustin Clouatre to wonder, “How can you regulate people helping people? That doesn’t make sense to me.”

Still, as the Cajun Navy demonstrates, funds may come from the federal government after a disaster, but localities must be prepared to handle the brunt of the initial response. (This is a forgotten lesson of 9/11: Private boaters helped tens of thousands of people evacuate Manhattan on that terrible day.) Community spaces around Louisiana, especially schools and churches, have opened as shelters to accommodate the populations driven out of their homes by the storm.

The City of Baton Rouge takes a similar tack in its flood preparation: the citizens are primarily responsible for their own well-being. In the case of flooding, the Baton Rouge Mayor’s Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness simply suggests that residents “prepare a disaster supply kit and listen to radio and TV stations for the most current information.”

True to this local mentality, the formal search-and-rescue operations have been coordinated by the state’s fire marshal, not the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Likewise, Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards has been touring affected areas, even after being ousted from his own home by flooding. On the other hand, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson arrived from Washington a full week after heavy rains began in Baton Rouge — likely too late to do much more than tour the affected areas.

States and localities that are more likely to be affected by natural disasters should strive for more autonomy over disaster-preparedness and response measures. As the above examples demonstrate, Louisiana, which has averaged over one disaster per year since Katrina, has already adopted this philosophy.

In addition to being less equipped than states and localities to handle local problems, the federal government spends a staggering amount of money on disasters, but does not properly budget for that spending. Even experts on the left acknowledge this. According to the Center for American Progress’s Daniel J. Weiss and Jackie Weidman, the U.S. government spent $136 billion on disaster relief between 2011 and 2013, approximately $400 per U.S. household. The government’s annual disaster-contingency fund is a paltry-by-comparison $12 billion.

Federal spending on disasters continues to grow nevertheless, but responsibility for most disasters seems best handled at the local level, as Louisiana is demonstrating. Some events, such as a massive terror or bioterror attack, are obviously within the domain of federal authorities. But whatever kind of disaster strikes, the fact is that individuals and local communities will have to handle the immediate aftermath, and need to be prepared for it. The FEMA checks come later, and can do some good if used properly. But in the short-term, individuals and localities need to recognize that the burden is on them. It’s a lesson Louisiana has already learned in the hardest way imaginable.

— Tevi Troy is a presidential historian, former White House aide, and ex-Deputy Secretary of Health. He is the author of the forthcoming Shall We Wake the President? Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office.

Tevi Troy — Tevi Troy is the President of the American Health Policy Institute. He is also the author of the best-selling book, What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years ...

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