Romney is right about FEMA and government disaster response

Image credit: NASA

Image credit: NASA

Superstorm Sandy isn’t even done doing its damage, and the knee-jerk punditry is already in full force. Many folks on the left, such as The New York Times editorial board, simply cannot imagine how anything but command-and-control national government can deal with big problems. Nor can they imagine any other way of measuring government performance than by measuring inputs. If more money is being spent, then by definition government must doing more, doing better. Less money equals fewer services and less value.

Thus we get editorials like this one from The Grey Lady: “A Big Storm Requires Big Government.” Now I am not going to pretend to know exactly how the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be structured and funded, or how responsibilities should be divided between state and national government. But I not going to automatically assume that more funding and more top-down control is the best path,a as the newspaper does. This bit of the NYT editorial really irks me:

Mr. Romney not only believes that states acting independently can handle the response to a vast East Coast storm better than Washington, but that profit-making companies can do an even better job. He said it was “immoral” for the federal government to do all these things if it means increasing the debt.

Let’s recall how one “profit-making” company did during Hurricane Katrina. From the study “Wal-Mart to the Rescue: Private Enterprise’s Response to Hurricane Katrina”:

Wal-Mart arrived in the New Orleans area long before FEMA and had the supplies that the community needed. Both President Aaron Broussard and Sheriff Harry Lee of Jefferson Parish in suburban New Orleans lauded Wal-Mart’s work. In an appearance on Meet the Press, Broussard noted the speed with which Wal-Mart had brought trucks of water to his area and then quoted Lee as saying, “if [the] American government would have responded like Wal-Mart has responded, we wouldn’t be in this crisis.”

Phillip Capitano, mayor of the New Orleans suburb of Kenner, reported that, “the only lifeline in Kenner was the Wal-Mart stores. We didn’t have looting on a mass scale because Wal-Mart showed up with food and water so our people could survive.” Other community leaders in the New Orleans area and cities along the rest of the Gulf Coast also praised Wal-Mart’s quick and effective response to the storm (Leonard 2005). Wal-Mart was not alone in providing much needed resources to the stricken areas, as other big box retailers such as Home Depot and Lowe’s also responded in similar ways. However, Wal-Mart’s response was the largest and, based on local reports, the most effective. In the three weeks following landfall, Wal-Mart shipped almost 2,500 truckloads of merchandise to the affected areas and had drivers and trucks in place to ship relief supplies to community members and organizations wishing to help.  …

In addition to what they sold as a result of quickly re-opening their stores, Wal-Mart also provided a large amount of free merchandise, including prescription drugs, to those in the worst-hit areas of the Gulf Coast. For example, several truckloads of free items went to New Orleans evacuees staying at the Astrodome and the Brown Convention Center in Houston. Most importantly, Wal-Mart was able to get this assistance to the disaster areas almost immediately after the storm had passed, in comparison to the days—in some cases weeks—that residents waited for government agencies to provide relief.

And here is the author’s conclusion:

The tale of Hurricane Katrina as a massive failure of government at multiple levels is a widely accepted one, even among people normally not inclined to point the finger of blame at government. However, the lesson that many draw is that it was a failure of will, resources and/or expertise by government that created the catastrophe that was Katrina. What is much less often argued is that these failures were endemic to the institutional environment of the political process, which is unable to provide the knowledge and incentives necessary for effective resource allocation in the way that the private sector can.

When placed next to FEMA’s failures, the largely untold but very clear story of Wal-Mart’s success illustrates the advantages the private sector has in managing the logistical challenge of resource allocation during a natural disaster. The incentive provided by private ownership and the knowledge provided by market signals such as prices and profits, all set in an environment of competition, create firms like Wal-Mart that are able to respond with agility and improvisation to a crisis like Katrina, and to do so with results far superior to almost all government agencies.

A political economy perspective on Wal-Mart’s heroic performance strongly challenges the belief that with more will, resources, or expertise, government could ever respond effectively to a major disaster. The flip side of government’s massive failures during Katrina is the notable successes of the private sector. Disaster policy makers who ignore the other half of the story do so not only at their own peril, but also at the peril of millions of Americans who could be the next victims of another disastrous government disaster relief effort.

The New York Times — and the pundits trotting out this editorial to damage the Romney campaign — are doing just what the study warned against, ignoring the other half of the story. They don’t even consider how markets or decentralization can improve performance. It is the same story with Medicare. They have a model — as old fashioned and obsolete as it is — and they’re sticking with it. Forward?

21 thoughts on “Romney is right about FEMA and government disaster response

  1. James, I enjoy your articles. However, Romney brought this on himself by saying that FEMA and other such programs should be closed and shifted back to the states. Then this morning Romney shows up at FEMA HQ for a photo op. Romney doesn’t know where he stands. How are we to figure him out? One day he is for something, the next day he is not, then the next day he is for it,… infinatum.

    With so much waffling so often, I am being to question his mental stability. He trying to be everything to everyone.

    As for you point about decentralization, some things such as Sandy require coordination and support beyond that what any one or two or three or four states can handle separately.

    • Try looking at the mental stability of the incompetent imbecile trying to engineer a coverup of Benghazi.

      There is blood on your messiah’s hands.

      • Good try Mac. Your words speak for themselves….and no denial at all of a possible Romney schizophrenia just 7 days before the election.

        • Murder can’t be swept under a rug–even you libs can’t do that!!!

          America is onto your Oval Office, al-Qaeda, butcher–he’s down 22 points from where he was in the 2008 early-vote count!

          Obama has blood on his hands.

          • Sorry Mac, your words keep proving my point….but, I suppose Reagan should have gone down rather than Col. North? Exaggeration, hyperbole, name-calling, is not truth. Let the truth come out. It hasn’t yet. And, I can tell you from an intel perspective, we may never know all the details, but rest assured….I find it reprehensible that any cogent patriotic American would for one minute entertain the absurd idea that our president would willfully let another American die. That’s just stupid. It also means that all the crap out there by some ignorant folks on the far far frightright have some kind of psychological need to destroy and deny everything of value in our great country. Time to stop the stupidity. Grow up. Be an American of value.

      • MacDaddyWatch- you are an embarrassment. Your retort to Tim’s statement, which is, sad to say, a common feeling amongst many of us Republicans that will be voting for Obama in 9 days- is exemplary to the very problem that is keeping us from getting a decent candidate up for election. I do not see Obama as a messiah and I feel bad for anyone who thinks the president has that much power, so as to save a country. Mitt Romney /might/ be able to do something with how he’s able to schmooze business practices, but- his tracked record is balls and his agenda changes based on who the audience is. This is what Tim is saying. And your retort? Name calling + Name calling + Finger pointing + Submission to propaganda. In other words, you responded with nothing but hot air. Which is what so much of our camps are doing all over the states. Useless statements that only show some “‘MERICA! WE DO NO WRONGZ!” mentality instead of trying to give one ounce of thought to what the argument is that is being displayed. I really with folks like you would stop responding or commenting. Because of your submission into ignorance and the people like you- we have have 3 complete and utter moronic buffoons given to us in the last two elections. Palin, Romney and Ryan. McCain just may have won if we didn’t stick that woman with him. And Ryan is just the male version of Ann Coulter. Romney is a shadow puppet who can’t be trusted will do anything remotely close to what he is saying he’ll do. Thanks RNC, thanks for thinking we are all like MacDaddyWatch here. Man, screw Fox News. Gah!

    • I’m curious Tim,

      Why would you trust Obama to provide support for anything after denying support to his own Ambassador and staff in Benghazi? It took Obama four chances before giving the command for the OBL operation. He was unable to give the command to put assets into the air to support his Ambassador.

      FEMA is an asset coordination agency. It supports the local and State governments during situations that overwhelm their manpower and resources. They do not provide operational control during disaster response. They provide resources, manpower and advice in support of State operations.

      BTW: I no longer question Obama’s mental stability. He is incompetent and unable to make any decision, let alone a major decision.

  2. The lesson of Fema’s response to Katrina — under Dubya — is don’t entrust important govt functions to people who intrinsically hate govt. The Bushes’ thousand points of light is appropriate to a degree but my church doesn’t have heliocopters or tractor trailer mounted generators. Dunno about yours. Entrusting emergency response to the low bidder would tend to limit the number of copters, too.

    • So should we entrust govt to people who want to grow govt reach and power? The Katrina aftermath was a man made disaster in more ways than one, and much of the paralysis could be blamed on local and State government.

  3. Amazing, isn’t it, that even in this ‘information age’ we still have to argue the merits of liberty, states rights and free enterprise, and debate those fearful, wanton hordes who advocate for even greater government involvement in our lives. It is not enough that the lessons of history are all laid out and readily accessible to each and every one of us, but that we need to wage this constant battle, and may in fact be losing. Unbelievable. Please keep up the good work.

    • I am neither fearful nor wanton nor advocating a greater role for the govt. I’m thinking that the 16 people plucked off the HMS Bounty were not spouting the merits of liberty or free enterprise as the Coast Guard swung them into the helicopter. Rational people recognize that there are some jobs only govt can do. If you can’t accept that then what’s unbelievable is you.

    • It seems far more unbelievable to me that in the modern age someone can state something with as close-minded as this. Have you even considered the possibility that those who argue for an expanded FEMA or an expanded role if government may have reasons that do not apply to you? Claiming that only those who argue for these things are “fearful, wanton hordes” is simple ignorance – I am certain you have heard plenty of reasoned arguments for these things. It does great damage to the national discourse to imply otherwise.

  4. Hardly schizophrenic. Arguing for a reduced role of government is not an argument for no role in government. An umbrella organization like FEMA can be useful in coordinating resources but giving them overall command, regardless of the ploticians in office seldom works out very efficiently.

  5. Let me see if I can get this right. Joe Allbaugh, George W. Bush’s campaign manager, was appointed head of FEMA after Bush won. Allbaugh, in turn, hired his longtime friend, Michael Brown, as FEMA’s General Counsel. Brown, like Allbaugh, doesn’t appear to have had any experience in emergency management but rose to the position of Deputy Director of FEMA and then to Director when Allbaugh resigned in March 2003.
    When Katrina struck, August 2005, FEMA wasn’t prepared. Brown left in disgrace, and it is based on this debacle that Pethokoukis concludes that Romney is correct, the federal government should step back from disaster response and let the free market solve the problem.
    The American Enterprise Institute, like the Republican Party, only has a few answers to what ails America. Got a surplus – cut taxes. Got a banking problem – reduce regulations. Got a deficit – cut taxes. Millions uninsured – let the market determine the outcome. Got mass shootings – issue more conceal carry permits. Foreign leader not to your liking – invade. Got a department that fails under inept leadership – do away with the department. Did I mention cut taxes?

    • FEMA (headed by Brown for this and dozens of other disasters, incl 9/11) offered govt help Friday as the hurricane was approaching. The Dem gov of Louisiana, who had to ask for/approve govt help, refused, as did Mayor Nagin of New Orleans. The hurricane hit, Sunday was a disaster, and then Louisiana finally asked for federal help Monday. But Nagin had failed to evacuate New Orleans, as he could have done by taking two bus “loads” (meaning filling all the buses available with New Orleans residents to evacuate, for only two trips); the residents then sat around and wanted help, many in the Superdome.
      The govt is on occasion a first responder (see Coast Guard response below, plus note its effort in fighting western forest fires), but most of those aiding New Jersey and nearby states will be those who live and work in the state…not the federal govt.
      Re. the litany of talking points above, most of which are spurious: Invade? Libya? How is Obama’s plan to invade using the United Nations and bypassing Congress working out for you?

  6. Here’s how this emergency response thing works:
    When a disaster happens (natural, man-made) the local government asks for help from the state when its resources are overwhelmed. Then the state comes in with more money and resources than the local agency. If the disaster becomes too large in scope for the state, the state has to REQUEST help from the Feds. There are actual documents that eventually have to be filled out and signed by the requesting Governor. Then and only then can the Feds come in with ALL their assets and set up shop. There is also a bill that comes along with it.
    In the case of Katrina, the mayor didn’t ask for help from the Governor in time. He, in turn, did not ask the assistance from the Feds in time. Therefore, what happened? A standard disaster became an epic-sized disaster. Yes, the underlying disaster (winds, flooding, etc) was actually standard fare. It was the lack of action on the part of the local and state level governments that turned into a history-book event.
    They had emergency action plans that FEMA and the Louisiana EMA developed within a couple of years before Katrina sitting in large notebook style binders that hd planned for just this kind of an event. And what wsa in these plans? Evacuation plans and routes, transportation plans (including the use of school busses) and plans for every other part of handling a disaster. Were those plans ever opened and referred to? Apparently not.
    And what was the Feds doing while all of this was happening? They already had teams pre-deployedand staged around Louisiana waiting for the request to come. They already had assets ready and as close to the event as they could safely get. So why didn’t they go in before the request was made? Because the state has sovereign rights. Yup, it’s that simple. The federal government just barging in would have been akin to an invasion. Also, the Feds were imploring the Governor to please “pull the trigger”, so to speak, and request the assistance. Because it was clear the state resources wouldn’t be able to handle this alone. But he waited.
    How do I know this? Because I am on one of the Federal Disaster teams that spent months in NOLA providing medical aid to the locals.

  7. James, my boy, your ideology limiting you from logic.

    Let’s eliminate FEMA and then all government support to rebuild after disasters. That make you happy?

    Oh yes, the private sector will just leap in to help out, just like the banks didn’t do post-crash with the bail-out money we gave them.

    • Public safety and free enterprise are often at odds. One can argue convincingly that FEMA, and specifically federal flood insurance, enables development in areas that shouldn’t be developed. But coastal commercial interests have thwarted even basic flood insurance fixes like charging market rates. (Rand Paul’s antiabortion amendment stalled a flood insurance bill this summer.) You see, there are some federal subsidies that Haley Barbour likes and some he doesn’t. Devolution is a sketchy answer when the original sin belongs to local officials who chose dollars over sane zoning.

  8. You don’t pretend to know how FEMA should be structured or funded? Really? You should have an opinion if you’re going to write a piece like this. Walmart was johnny on the spot? That’s nice, but it only do things like this if it’s in its interest. FEMA does it regardless. This extremely well-trod free market discussion is nice but unless you are proposing a viable and reliable subsititute for FEMA………… Wasn’t it Pres. Bush’s FEMA guy (a horse expert, by profession, I think) the one who messed up the Katrina response?

    I also notice a lot of anti-Obama name calling and off-topic vitriol in reader comments. Beneath you, I think ( I hope)? Thank you, M

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