Friday, November 9, 2012

Government disaster relief again falls short

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we're seeing yet again that government-organized disaster relief efforts are seldom all they could be, and often very far from what they should be.  Complaints about the lack of relief, ineffective or inadequate or misdirected or badly organized relief, and lack of official concern (up to and including several FEMA offices closing due to bad weather!) are legion.  Some emergency relocation centers appear to be seriously deficient.

In that light, I refer readers to my article 'Lessons learned from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005'.  In it, I said (amongst many other things) the following:

There are "too many chiefs, not enough Indians" in New Orleans at the moment ... there's alleged to be conflict between City officials and State functionaries, with both sides claiming to be "running things". Some individuals in the Red Cross, FEMA, and other groups appear to be refusing to take instructions from either side, instead (it's claimed) wanting to run their own shows. This is allegedly producing catastrophic confusion and duplication of effort, and may even be making the loss of life worse, in that some areas in need of rescuers aren't getting them.

. . .

There are numerous reports of aggressive, overbearing behavior by those rescuers who first arrived at disaster scenes. It's perhaps best described as "I'm here to rescue you - I'm in charge - do as I say - if you don't I'll shoot you". It appears that mid-level State functionaries and Red Cross personnel (the latter without the "shoot you" aspect, of course) were complained about most often ... Another aspect of this is that self-sufficient, responsible families were often regarded almost with suspicion by rescuers. The latter seemed to believe that if you'd come through the disaster better than your neighbors, it could only have been because you stole what you needed, or somehow gained some sort of unfair advantage over the "average victims" in your area.

. . .

There is widespread frustration over the lack of communication and empathy by rescuers and local/State government. This is partly due to the absence of electricity, so that TV's were not available to follow events as they unfolded: but it's also due to an almost deliberate policy of non-communication by rescuers. There are many accounts of evacuees wanting to know where the bus or plane was going that they were about to board, only to be told "We don't know", or "To a better place than this". Some have found themselves many States away from their homes. Other families were arbitrarily separated upon rescue and/or evacuation, and are still scattered across two or three States. Their efforts to locate each other are very difficult, and when they request to be reunited at a common location, all of those with whom I have contact report a blanket refusal by the Red Cross and State officials to even consider the matter at this time. They're being informed that it will be "looked into" at some future date, and that they may have to pay the costs involved if they want to join up again ... Lesson learned: never, EVER allow yourselves to be separated as a family, even if it means waiting for later rescue and/or evacuation. Insist on this at all costs!

There's more at the link.  It looks as if many of those 'lessons learned' need to be re-learned by those involved in the Hurricane Sandy relief effort.

I also recommend an excellent study in the Spring 2009 issue of The Independent Review.  It's by Stephen Horwitz, and is titled 'Wal-Mart to the Rescue: Private Enterprise’s Response to Hurricane Katrina'.  At the link you'll find a further link to the full article in .PDF format;  ignore the opening page of advertisements, and scroll down to the article itself.  It's full of very interesting information about how Wal-Mart responded to Hurricane Katrina, mobilizing its resources to assist those in need - to far better effect than FEMA in many ways.  The author begins:

In the several years that have passed since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in the late summer of 2005, it has become increasingly clear to many observers that governments at different levels were at fault for almost every stage of the sequence of events that turned the passing of a fairly strong hurricane to the east of New Orleans into a catastrophe. Government has been quite appropriately the target of a great deal of criticism both by local residents and by observers elsewhere with regard to the special interests at work in constructing the elaborate system of pumps, levees, and canals that try to make the city’s water go everywhere but where nature wants it to go; the problems with the actual canal and levee construction by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; the botched evacuation plans; the confusion over which levels of government should respond, and how, to the multiple and very visible failures of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); and the ongoing inability of various levels of government to rebuild the New Orleans area. Unfortunately, as is often the case when existing government agencies fail to do their assigned task, the response to this government failure has been for many people, especially those in the agencies involved, to argue that those failures were owing to a lack of will, resources, or expertise. As numerous public-choice economists and economic historians have documented, this call for more government power is a typical response to crisis, with the end result being a surge in the size and scope of government from which a full retreat is never made.

Lost in this increasingly common narrative of Katrina, however, is any discussion of the few institutions that did respond effectively in the aftermath of the storm. Not much has been said about the role private enterprise played in providing necessary resources in the immediate aftermath and in helping to reestablish a sense of normalcy in the days and weeks that followed. The best example of a successful private-sector response is that of Wal-Mart and other “big-box” retailers, such as Home Depot. The untold story of Katrina involves the way in which Wal-Mart in particular responded with speed and effectiveness, often in spite of government relief workers’ attempts to stymie it, and in the process saved numerous lives and prevented looting and chaos that otherwise would have occurred.

Again, much more at the link - and very interesting reading it is, too.  Bold print is my emphasis, particularly in the light of my 'lessons learned' post cited above.

I suggest that readers take note of the fact that government seems to have learned little or nothing from its earlier failures in disaster relief . . . and plan accordingly as part of your own emergency preparations.  As I said after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita"Moral of the story: if you want to survive, don't rely on the government or any government agency (or private relief organization, for that matter) to save you. Your survival is in your own hands - don't drop it!"



Old NFO said...

Peter, as always you've hit the nail on the head... SELF reliance is the ONLY successful method for survival...

Douglas2 said...

From what I've seen so far in this disaster, the Venn diagram has had no overlap between the sets "things within the remit of FEMA" and "things people are complaining that FEMA has not done"

The Great and Powerful Oz said...

As a long time ham radio operator, I have never seen FEMA regarded as a really competent organization, but since Homeland Security made the power play to take them over FEMA has been a total joke.