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The Making of a Disaster

To the Editor:

Chris Edelson’s essay “Who Needs the United States Government?” [Sept. 8] argues that Katrina answers decades of “conservative rhetoric” advocating smaller government. He urges us to “reimagine . . . our national government as a force for good that will be there when its desperate citizens cry out for help.”

Well, despite all the conservative onslaughts Edelson decries, government has not actually shrunk. In fact, it has grown ever larger. America’s government today is the biggest in human history. Yet, when called upon to fulfill government’s most basic function, in the Gulf Coast, almost everyone including President Bush agrees that it did too little too late. What lesson should we draw from this?

I would humbly suggest that government, by its nature, is just not a very good vehicle for meeting human needs. The reasons are varied and complex, but the main one is politics, and how it distorts priorities. The colossal sums government spends are inevitably doled out at the behest of political constituencies, which means they are inevitably spent in the wrong ways and on the wrong things. Today’s Times Union details that Bush administration spending requests for key New Orleans flood-control work actually exceeded those of the Clinton administration. But billions have been misspent on ill-advised and even deleterious water projects, due to political pressure from Louisiana’s congressional delegation.

I don’t say we should forget about government for things like disaster relief. In fact, this is exactly the kind of job we really do need government for. The lesson instead is simply to be dubious about looking to government, in general, as the answer for societal problems. My own libertarian belief in limited government was not undermined, but rather reinforced, by how predictably badly government performed in the Katrina situation.

But it’s ironic that folks on the left, bedazzled by visions of big benevolent government, are so consistently disappointed, even horrified, by how government actually behaves in the real world. It’s the left that’s endlessly denouncing government’s doings: the military-industrial complex, corporate welfare, trampling civil liberties, etc., and now Katrina. And big government does indeed trample those human values liberals and progressives profess to cherish. Yet, like Mr. Edelson, undaunted, they cling to the idea of government “as a force for good that will be there when its desperate citizens cry out for help”—like battered wives who, through their bruises, proclaim undying love for their batterers.

Truly a triumph of hope over experience.

Frank S. Robinson


To the Editor:

As a frequent reader of Metroland, either by getting a printed copy or using my computer, I disagree frequently with much of what I read in it. However, I find myself in agreement with your story that Katrina was a disaster that shouldn’t have happened [“The Disaster That Shouldn’t Have Been,” Sept. 8].

What happened to FEMA, and particularly its downgrading from cabinet-level status, with a director who had direct access to the president, to a unit in the Department of Homeland Security buried under layers of bureaucracy, is, without a doubt, a major cause of the inadequate, confused and delayed federal response to the affected people and communities. As a retired professional in what is now termed emergency management, with over 30 years of experience at the state level, including over 10 years as director of what is now the New York State Emergency Management Office, I join the ranks of the active and retired emergency management officials you quote in your article as criticizing this downgrading.

However, what happened to FEMA is only a part of the scenario that led to the disaster. For example, in 2002 the New Orleans Times-Picayune ran an award-winning series of articles that called attention to the potential for disaster. Little or no action was taken on the basis of that analysis. For example, the United States Army Corps of Engineers requested funds to improve and maintain flood-control facilities in New Orleans. The request was reduced significantly, but the president and Congress did find and appropriate money to fund “pork barrel” projects throughout the country instead. For example, FEMA’s leadership was given to nonprofessionals, and that fact, coupled with the de-emphasis on FEMA’s disaster mitigation, response and recovery mission, led many emergency management professionals to resign.

After every disaster, everyone looks for someone to blame. Today, FEMA is the patsy. However, this is not the time for bombast and finger-pointing. Today, the emphasis must be on saving lives and restoring communities. If current leaders, at any and all levels of government, are incapable of doing their jobs in this regard, they should be replaced promptly by professionals. Let the investigations wait until the real job is done. And when the investigations are under way, let’s not limit them to FEMA.

Arnold W. Grushky


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