Want to understand the strengths of government but also learn some cautionary tales? You could do no better than to study the business of disaster relief. You’ll find it all here: How federalism works, and sometimes doesn’t. Why scale is important but so is proximity to problems. Why government works best when it follows best practices, and what can go wrong when it doesn’t. How governments could work comprehensively to address big problems, but for political reasons, sometimes don’t. And why, at the end of the day, focus, professionalism, and sound management are as important to good government as they are for medicine, engineering, education, or business.
The greatest cautionary tales involve New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when local officials and citizens begged on live television for help, which was slow in coming and chaotically managed. Katrina was a Category 5 storm that caused more than 1,800 deaths and $125 billon in damage. It was a blow to the federal government’s reputation, with public opinion of President George W. Bush plummeting as a result and scorn heaped on the primary disaster relief agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In time, it brought reform to FEMA, which we’ll get to in a bit.
But, first, some background on disaster relief, starting with what it is. At the federal level, the best way of understanding disaster relief is to consider it a form of insurance. Insurance works by promising that, if something terrible happens (your car is wrecked, your house burned to the ground, your health compromised), you may not be made whole but your situation can be made manageable. Insurance can make that promise because, when the worst happens to a few, others are spared and still paying their premiums.
Disaster relief operates on the same premise. In a country the size of the United States, bad things don’t happen everywhere at once. So for a relatively small amount of tax money collected from 141 million taxpayers, the federal government can assist communities in the West ravaged by wildfires and earthquakes, coastal areas in the East inundated by hurricanes, and places in the Deep South and Midwest struck by tornadoes.
But what kind of relief? Generally in three forms. First, with emergency services, such as rescuing people and providing safe shelters. Second, with short-term assistance, such as housing and food. (After floods, FEMA trailers are trucked to some disaster sites.) Third, with long-term recovery through grants and low-interest loans to restore infrastructure and rebuild houses and stores.
And this is where federalism comes in, as local and state officials usually manage the emergency services, state and federal officials deal with temporary assistance, and the federal government provides programs that help with long-term recovery.
Worth noting: There’s a fourth form of assistance, which is preparation. Were it not for storm forecasts provided by the federal government’s National Weather Service, many more people would be lost to hurricanes and tornadoes. The science and technology have improved since 2005, but even then millions were spared injury or death in Katrina because state and local officials, using federal forecasts and warnings, urged residents to flee. Most did.
This system of federal-state-local cooperation works best, of course, when each level has a role and respects the others’ contributions. It also works well when the partners follow best practices—a set of routines based on what has worked in the past—and if each member of the system (federal officials, state and local officials) knows exactly what to do at each step. Best practices are important to government performance in general but especially in times of crisis and cooperation. And, of course, there are no crises that require intergovernmental coordination as much as disaster relief efforts.
What’s interesting about this system of intergovernmental cooperation is how recent it is. Before 1979, the federal government’s involvement in natural disasters was limited and episodic. For over a century, there was no federal promise of help in local disasters. If a city were destroyed by a flood or earthquake, local officials could contact their senators and representatives and ask them to introduce a bill that might, eventually, offer some compensation. But nothing was guaranteed, and if it did come it might be months or even years later. (Between 1803 and 1930, Congress passed more than 100 of these ad-hoc appropriations.)
Things changed a bit in the early 1930s, when President Herbert Hoover allowed a new agency, the Reconstruction Finance Agency, to play a limited role in disaster relief. In the 1940s, the Army Corps of Engineers was given responsibility for flood control and irrigation, and a larger role in flood relief efforts.
By the 1970s, governors were tired of this piecemeal approach and urged Congress to create a permanent federal agency to plan for disasters and assist states and localities in recovery. Congress responded by passing a law that led to President Jimmy Carter’s creation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Good agencies, like good businesses or schools, are not built overnight. And it took years for FEMA to learn how to work effectively with state and local authorities—and even to know what its role was. By all accounts, it found these things during the Bill Clinton administration, when a highly regarded director, James Lee Witt, ran FEMA and the agency performed well in a string of natural disasters.
How, then, did FEMA go from such high regard in the late 1990s to the fiasco in New Orleans a few years later? This gets to the need for focus, professionalism, and good management in government. Witt was an experienced disaster-relief official, having run the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services before arriving in Washington. In other words, he was a pro.
Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, had other priorities. He moved FEMA from its status as an independent agency reporting directly to the president to an agency within the Department of Homeland Security. There it lost its singular focus on natural disasters and took on an additional mission, helping with terrorist attacks. And in place of the experienced Witt, Bush chose Michael D. Brown, a man who had spent a decade in the business of judging show horses. Not surprisingly, when he confronted a major disaster like Katrina, Brown was in way over his head.
The good news: After Katrina, Congress passed reforms that restored much of FEMA’s focus and professionalism. And the agency began doing the basics well again, such as training for state and local emergency management officials in best practices.
A final note: Governments could do more to limit the impact of disasters like hurricanes and wildfires by restricting construction in areas that flood frequently or in areas prone to fire—or, at the very least, require that new construction withstand most storms or fires. These are usually decisions made at the local level, with zoning, building permits and building codes. But, for a number of reasons, some localities are reluctant to restrict development.
That’s too bad because one of government’s greatest strengths is its ability to attack problems comprehensively, through services, infrastructure, and smart regulation. In an earlier entry, we showed how cities had dramatically reduced the threat of urban fire by mandating fire-resistant construction and smoke detectors.
This is possible in disaster relief as well, but it requires political will at the local level—perhaps bolstered by incentives from state and federal governments. Still, mark this down as a strength of government—and only government. Insurance companies and private businesses cannot bring a comprehensive approach to a common problem like natural disasters. Only governments can. As we wait for local and state governments to use all their tools at their disposal to limit loss of life and property, we can be thankful that, if the worst does come to our communities, government disaster experts stand ready to help.
Give the credit to: local government 25%, state government 25%, federal government 50%
Photo by mad mags licensed under Creative Commons.