Thursday, October 15, 2009

Hurricane Katrina lives on

I heard on the radio today that President Obama was in New Orleans, which has still not recovered from Hurricane Katrina. (CNN article here.) I wouldn't expect it to be 100% recovered, but apparently a lot of it is still a disaster area. One of the questions that Obama fielded was, naturally, "Why hasn't the government done more?" Obama's responded by saying that he was working on improving things: "My expectation is that by the time that my term is over, you guys are going to look back and you're going to say, 'This was a responsive administration on health care, on housing, on education, that actually made sure the money flowed and that things got done the way they were supposed to get done."

I doubt whether any president can introduce drastic changes into any organization as large as FEMA. Because of the civil service system, 99% of its employees cannot be changed by the new administration. (I don't like to toss around percentages lightly. I found this article which shows FEMA having a projected employee count of almost 165,000 in 2003, and it is almost certainly higher now. I don't know exactly how many political appointees there are among those, but I doubt very seriously if it comes anywhere near 1650. Probably more like 16.) The result is an incredible institutional inertia that grips any large bureaucracy. I'm not saying that bureaucracies are bad, or that they can't be changed, but I am sceptical of how much they can be changed in four years by a few appointees at the top.

The whole Katrina story made me ill because of the way Bush was blamed for it. First, the hurricane was a natural disaster; and, no, global warming had nothing to do with it. For several years afterward, the national weather service predicted that hurricane season would be more severe than normal because of global warming, and they have been wrong every time -- in fact, hurricane seasons have been milder. It was just a coincidence that Katrina struck on Bush's watch rather than Obama's. In fact, it appears to have been a coincidence that it didn't strike at any time in the previous 30 years, since engineers had been anticipating a disaster for New Orleans for that length of time.

Second, I reiterate that I am dubious how much of FEMA's problems can realistically be assigned to the president. Yes, the president is head of the administration, but it is an enormous administration -- and FEMA is probably pretty far down on the list of priorities. Imagine how much worse it would be for a president if there were such incompetence in the military, the CIA, the FBI, the IRS...okay, maybe there is, but they're all higher priority than FEMA (at any time save a major natural disaster). What would you rather have, (a) a president who supported your political views but was a lousy administrator, or (b) one who opposed your views but who was an excellent administrator? Obviously the answer is (b) for over 50% of the country, because they voted for Obama in spite of the fact that he has virtually no record as an administrator. He might be excellent, but there is scarcely any evidence for that -- they wanted him because of his views. It may be possible to show that a president screwed up the administration of a particular organization, but you'll have to show me the evidence first; the mere fact that he is president is insufficient.

Third, governmental incompetence in response was even more pronounced at the (Democratically-controlled) state and local levels than at the federal level. We all know the stories about buses sitting unusued while people needed to be evacuated. It was appropriate for the federal government to intervene and assist the state, but the blame for problems has to be apportioned appropriately.

Fourth, the time for federal emergency relief is over. I don't know the details of how FEMA aid is administered, but the emergency in New Orleans is long past. It is not the government's business -- certainly not the federal government's business -- to rebuild private houses or even municipal buildings. If people want things rebuilt, they should do it themselves. Moreover, I think the government should make it clear that it will not assist in any future natural disasters in New Orleans, for the same reason that it is probably impossible to get private home insurance there: the risk is just too great. As much as I would hate to lose New Orleans as a national icon, I don't want to pay to keep it from becoming the next Atlantis.

Speaking of time passed, I am amazed and disappointed that New York still hasn't built anything on the site of the twin towers. (This comes to mind because the New Orleans mayor once responded to criticism about the slow rebuilding of his city by pointing to the hole still present in New York City.) This was not a natural disaster, but a foreign attack. And while I wouldn't usually support the government's involvement in rebuilding private structures, in this case I would have made it a point to erect two buildings, as big as if not bigger than the destroyed towers, as soon as possible after they were destroyed. It is a point of pride for the country, and a means of discouraging the attackers. The new buildings would not have to be private; the government could erect two office buildings, and I'm sure it could find some bureaucracy to house there.

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