by J.D. Tuccille
September 6, 2005

Get politicians out of the disaster relief business

Right on schedule, Democrats and Republicans began battling over responsibility for the muddled Hurricane Katrina relief effort. Did the war-distracted Bush administration neglect domestic priorities, including levee maintenance? Did cartoonishly corrupt Louisiana authorities drop the ball when called on to protect their citizens? Watch the televised smackdown to see the winner.

Few people are satisfied with the way government agencies responded to the devastation wrought by hurricane Katrina. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), never known for its efficiency, seems to have further deteriorated after its absorption by the terrorism-obsessed Department of Homeland Security. Conditions at the Superdome degenerated to "Road Warrior" levels, with shortages of food and water and armed attacks by human predators, while federal officials ... well, nobody seems to know what federal officials were doing. FEMA apparently learned that thousands of people were waiting for rescue at the convention center from TV news reports.

Local officials have little reason to boast; the already notorious New Orleans Police Department fell apart as soon as the storm hit. According to The New York Times, about a third of the force simply walked off the job. Local reports say that many officers used their badges and guns to join the ranks of looters. Says the on-the-spot Interdictor blog, "the people we've been talking to say they are not recognizing the NOPD as a legitimate authority anymore."

Even as they fumbled their own responses to the disaster, government officials found time to block private relief efforts. The Salvation Army was forbidden to send boats to rescue refugees sheltered in one of its facilities, one of the group's officials told the press. It seems the private relief organization's efforts didn't fit the government's schedule. Likewise, the American Red Cross says, "The state Homeland Security Department had requested -- and continues to request -- that the American Red Cross not come back into New Orleans following the hurricane."

Aaron Broussard, Jefferson Parish president, put it best when he told interviewers, "Bureaucracy has murdered people in the greater New Orleans area and bureaucracy needs to stand trial before Congress today."

Bureaucrats may excel at collecting taxes and bombing cities, but they're out of their league when responding to unexpected events. They're even bad at long-term planning for foreseeable problems. Motivated by careerism and political ambition, bureacrats are unsuited for dealing with crises. Rules, regulations and institutional inertia ensure that governments will always be social dinosaurs: massive and powerful, but slow and stupid.

Largely free of pointless rules and confused priorities, private individuals and organizations respond dynamically to crises. Large organizations like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army offer food and shelter to thousands of refugees. Corporations such as Wal-Mart donate millions of dollars for relief and distribute free goods. Transportation companies including Carnival Cruise Lines and Southwest Airlines transport and house refugees. And millions of private Americans rescue survivors, donate money and open their homes to those who lost everything in the hurricane.

Politicians may argue over who screwed up the government's response to Katrina, but the screw-up was inevitable as soon as the government took charge. If we want to avoid future fiascos, we need to turn to the individuals, organizations and corporations that stepped up to the plate while government officials staggered around in shock. Future disaster relief efforts should be led by the private sector.

Responding to disasters is a big job, but it's hardly unprecedented for a private organization to assume such responsibility. Some private relief groups, such as the Red Cross, are well known for their work and almost universally respected. Other groups are less known but still take on monumental tasks: The World Economic Forum's Disaster Relief Network (DRN) coordinated the flow of relief supplies in Sri Lanka and Indonesia to survivors of the December 2004 tsunami.

Staffed by people who really care about helping those in need and funded by donations spurred by past performance, private organizations have a record of responding quickly and effectively to disasters. While private groups can drop the ball too, their dependence on voluntary funding means that organizations that fail in their mission can easily be replaced. That's more than we can say about any government agency.

With disaster relief privately managed, government would still play a role similar to that of any large donor. Government agencies could put supplies, troops and equipment at the disposal of private relief coordinators to be used where needed. If such an arrangement had been in place after Hurricane Katrina, National Guardsmen might have escorted relief shipments instead of blocking their passage.

So let the politicians have fun bashing each other on TV; it's one of the few tasks at which they excel. Serious people should get about the business of preparing for the next disaster -- without any "assistance" from the government.

This column was published September 13, 2005 by Las Vegas Review Journal.

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