September 3, 2005


Ben Franklin Had the Right Idea for New Orleans (JOHN TIERNEY, 9/03/05, NY Times)

[T]he risk of a fire leveling a city like New York is lower than ever. Although the number of fires has dropped so much that experts routinely advise cities to close firehouses, voters' fondness for the stations makes local politicians loath to close any.

But as we've learned this week, few people seem to care passionately about maintaining levees or preparing for a predictable flood. They've left that to Washington, which promised to hold back the waters and absolved coastal dwellers from worrying about hurricanes.

Starting in the 1960's, the federal government took over the business of insuring against floods. It offered subsidized insurance to people in flood-prone areas, encouraging seaside homes that never would have been built otherwise. Even at bargain rates, most people went without flood insurance - only about a third of the homes in New Orleans carried it.

People don't bother to protect themselves because they figure - correctly - that if disaster strikes they'll be reimbursed anyway by FEMA. It gives out money so freely that it has grown into one of the great vote-buying tools of the modern presidency. Bill Clinton set a record for declaring disasters, and then President Bush set the single-state spending record in Florida before last year's election.

Now it's New Orleans's turn. Since Washington didn't keep its promise to protect the city, the federal government should repair the damage and pay for a new flood-control system. But New Orleans and other coastal cities will never be safe if they go on relying on Washington for protection. Members of Congress will always have higher priorities than paying for levees in someone else's state.

The deal is, you don't have to take any responsibility for your own life and when you screw it up bad enough we'll give you a check--just like welfare used to be before we reformed it.

Bureaucratic Failure: To understand Katrina's problems, read the 9/11 report. (DANIEL HENNINGER , September 2, 2005, Opinion Journal)

We fail to use well what we know because we rely too much on large public bureaucracies. This was the primary lesson of the 9/11 Commission Report. Large public bureaucracies, whether the FBI and the CIA or FEMA and the Corps of Engineers, don't talk to each other much. They are poorly incentivized, if at all. Budgets, the oxygen of the acronymic planets, make bureaucracy's managers first responders to constant political whim. Real-world problems, as the 9/11 report noted, inevitably seem distant and minor: "Once the danger has fully materialized, evident to all, mobilizing action is easier--but it then may be too late."

Homeland Security, a new big bureaucracy, has struggled since 2001 to assemble a feasible plan to respond to another major terror event inside the U.S. The possibility, or likelihood, of a bird-borne flu pandemic is beginning to reach public awareness, but the government is at pains to create a sufficient supply of vaccine or a distribution system for anti-viral medicines. Any bets on which will come first--the flu or the distribution system?

Big public bureaucracies are going to get us killed. They already have. One may argue that this is an inevitable result of living in an advanced and complex democracy. Yes, up to a point. An open political system indeed breeds inefficiencies (though possibly the Jeb Bush administration that dealt with the 2004 hurricanes is more competent than Gov. Blanco's team in Louisiana). And perhaps low-lying, self-indulgent New Orleans understood its losing bargain with a devil's fate.

But we ought to at least recognize that our increasingly tough First World problems--terrorism, viruses, the rising incidence of powerful natural disasters--are being addressed by a public sector that too often is coming to resemble a Third World that can't execute.

I'll go further. We should consider outsourcing some of these functions, for profit, to the private sector. In recent days, offers of help have come from such companies as Anheuser-Busch and Culligan (water), Lilly, Merck and Wyeth (pharmaceuticals), Nissan and GM (cars and trucks), Sprint, Nextel and Qwest (communications gear and phone cards), Johnson & Johnson (toiletries and first aid), Home Depot and Lowe's (manpower). Give contract authority to organize these resources to a project-management firm like Bechtel. Use the bureaucracies as infantry.

IS CALIFORNIA READY?: Make a plan, now (LA Times, September 3, 2005)
THE SCENES OF DEVASTATION in New Orleans evoke sadness and compassion everywhere, but in California they also evoke a sense of uncomfortable foreboding. The Santa Monica Freeway — or I-10, which is buried under water 1,900 miles east of Santa Monica — isn't the only connective tissue between Los Angeles and the Crescent City. Like the people of New Orleans, Californians clustered around L.A. and San Francisco tempt fate on a daily basis, having decided to live in a vulnerable place that Mother Nature could instantly extinguish. [...]

[W]hat if a monster quake — something in the magnitude 9.0 range — hits greater Los Angeles? Certainly freeways would collapse, hindering attempts to flee the region. Some streets and roads not blocked by collapsed overpasses might be passable. But priority access would be granted to rescue and relief teams. Many are suffering in New Orleans because they did not, or could not, heed the order to evacuate. Of course, there's no warning of an earthquake. But officials often order the evacuation of areas threatened by flood, fire or landslide.

In New Orleans, thousands of residents unable to evacuate — most of them poor, trapped in more ways than one — wandered the streets with nothing more than the clothes they wore. Such scenes demonstrate the need to improve evacuation plans for people who lack their own means of escape, and also the need for families to prepare to survive on their own, if necessary, for days following a disaster.

As often as this has been emphasized in California, the Office of Emergency Services estimates that only 25% to 30% of Californians have a plan of what to do in a disaster. Development of such a plan is not difficult. How to do so is outlined on the Emergency Services website, .

Katrina should serve as a reminder to all Californians that there is no excuse for being ill-prepared.

That 25-30% is a wild overestimation and it won't go up even slightly because of this.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 3, 2005 8:50 AM

I live in Omaha and I went to undergrad at Loyola University of New Orleans back in the 1980's. Last week I dropped my neighbor off at the airport, he had a weekend conference at the New Orleans Sheraton on Canal Street right across from the Quarter. Unfortunately, by last Sunday he was stuck in NO and he had to ride out the storm with 1,000 other hotel guest at the Sheraton on the 5th Floor Ballroom. He said the 44+ floor hotel had very little damage and no flood damage. He said the staff and management of the hotel was exception. He said they were highly trained and did just about everything to ensure the comfort and safety of all the guests. They had more than enough food and water and even had electricity (although no air conditioning). They had security on the premises. He was in NO until Wednesday, when the Sheraton arranged to have buses come in and take everyone to Baton Rouge and then to Dallas. The buses drove all night Wed. and he arrived in Dallas and was put up in a Sheraton until his flight left Thurs. afternoon. He said that the Sheraton Hotel and only the Sheraton Hotel arranged all of it. City, parish, state and federal government had no hand whatsoever in it.

Posted by: pchuck at September 3, 2005 2:27 PM

The Los Angeles scenario is a bit overblown, as the really big earthquakes, 8.0 and above, are usually associated with subduction zones or plate boundary fault systems. LA proper may be riddled with faults (tectonic and otherwise) but not that kind of fault. Which is not to say that a local 7.0 won't be bad, but making the future sound so scary that it appears like there's nothing we can do, so let's live for today, "party on, dude!", seems to be part of the mindset that got New Orleans into its present mess.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at September 3, 2005 2:34 PM

pchuck. Thanks for a positive story of what a big corporation can do.

We'll make the Sheridan our hotel of first choice whenever possible. You should send this story to their corporate headquarters. Publicity like this is priceless.

Posted by: erp [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 3, 2005 3:24 PM

The first article notes that Bush set a single state spending record in Florida before the 2004 election. A competent reporter would realize that 4 hurricanes hitting Florida within a 1-2 month period might have had something to do with that.

Posted by: AWW at September 3, 2005 4:56 PM

"A competent reporter would realize that 4 hurricanes hitting Florida within a 1-2 month period might have had something to do with that."

Yes, but a reporter with an agenda might choose to overlook that little detail.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 4, 2005 1:09 AM