There has been widespread criticism of the response of US officials to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. The tone of these complaints is that the authorities failed to do their job quickly enough. Some commentators have said this is a racial issue, claiming that the government would have acted more promptly if the majority of victims had been white instead of black. Others have said it was an issue of the rich against the poor, the oil companies against the consumers, the land developers and contractorsseeking to force people out of the city so they can rebuild without interference at taxpayers’ expense. Democrats have said the problem is that Republicans were in control, and Republicans are indifferent to the plight of the common man.
In news coverage of this tragedy, the most significant events often were buried beneath a blanket of heart-wrenching stories of personal survival, scenes of awesome destruction, reports of looting, and interviews with experts. However, the key to understanding can be found in the following list of news headlines, most of which did not make it into mainstream coverage. These reports make it clear that the government did not fail to respond in a timely fashion. The problem was that it did respond – but in such a way as to actually hinder rescue operations. There were too many instances for this to be merely a mistake or a bureaucratic snafu. There is a clear pattern here that cannot be denied. Why this should be so will be discussed in a moment, but first, here is the amazing record.
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(If the original sources are no longer active, click on (Cached).
Pentagon says military mission in New Orleans is combat, not rescue. Army Times 2005 Sept 2 (Cached)
Military turns back flood survivors trying to leave city. Thousands held at gunpoint and locked up in Superdome.
Reuters 2005 Sept 3 (Cached)
FEMA officials forbid stores from re-opening. Sheriff defies their order and threatens to arrest them. (Article near the bottom of page.) Times-Picayune 2005 Sept 11 (Cached)
FEMA declines volunteer firemen for rescue operations. Uses them to distibute public relations pamphlets.
Salt Lake Tribune 2005 Sept 12 (Cached)
So what is going on here? Were agents of the federal government trying to kill American citizens? Were they trying to obtain the maximum death toll and the highest level of human suffering? It would seem that way at first, but I would like to suggest that this incredible behavior stems from something else – something equally unsettling.
The only legitimate function of government is to protect the lives, liberty, and property of its citizens. In New Orleans, however, it was clear that the primary job of the military, FEMA, and Homeland Security was, not to protect citizens, but to protect the government and keep it functioning. It can be argued that, if government does not protect itself first, it may not be able to protect its citizens, so that should be its first obligation. However, the government was not in danger in New Orleans. Aside from one or two snipers, its forces were never under attack, and its ability to function was never threatened; so the self-preservation argument is not valid in this case.
It was clear from the start that the goal of FEMA and Homeland Security was, not to resue people, but to control them. Their directive was to relocate families and businesses, confiscate property, commandeer goods, direct labor and services, and establish martial law. This is what they have been trained to do. The reason they failed to carry out an effective rescue operation is that this was not their primary mission, and the reason they blocked others from doing so is that any operations not controlled by the central authority are contrary to their directives. Their objective was to bring the entire area under the control of the federalgovernment – and this they succeeded in doing very well.
William Anderson, in an article posted to the the web site of the von Mises Institute, came to the same conclusion but from a slightly different perspective. He calls attention to the need for politicians andgovernment agencies to be in the spotlight during emergencies so they can look good to the voters and claim credit for all positive results. They are not interested in sharing the praise. Williams writes:
The huge outpouring of private aid, from donation of money, food, clothing, time, and housing (many people simply have taken in refugees — white and black — in their own homes) stands in contrast to [Anne] Rice’s “America is hopelessly racist and hates the poor” [as Rice claimed in the New York Times] and demonstrates that the will to sacrifice for those truly in need certainly exists in this country. While it is not surprising that the elitist New York Times would take this as its standard view, it also is a shame when the country’s “newspaper of record” can’t even record the right things.
Yet, for all of the public angst over the federal government’s — and especially FEMA’s — post-disaster response, most observers have missed what is painfully obvious: the government’s response was perfectly in character to how people in government act in such situations. To say this in an alternative way, government was being government the same way that a dog is a dog.
As anyone knows, dogs are territorial animals, and governments are territorial entities. The first rule that agovernment agent follows when confronted with an “emergency” is to “secure the area.” For example, when two young men were merrily going on a murder and mayhem spree at Columbine High School in 1999, the vaunted police “SWAT” team stayed outside and encircled the complex because someone said that the area had to be “secured” before police actually could try to save anyone. (Of course, we found out later that not only did police fail to save people, but at least one person bled to death because police refused to get help until the man had died. This was not incompetence; it was the normal workings of the “I am in charge and don’t you forget it” mentality that permeates government at all levels.)
Immediately after the hurricane had stopped in New Orleans, for example, a Wal-Mart had brought a truckload of bottled water; FEMA officials turned the truck away, declaring that it was “not needed.” Before we dismiss this incident as yet another example of incompetent government, we should realize that the official’s actions were completely within the character of government.
When governments act to provide services to individuals, they are done within a very different context than what occurs when private organizations provide services. The post-Katrina services performed by the Red Cross and other organizations such as civil groups and churches did not come with the threat of force attached to them. Church volunteers cannot arrest or even kill someone in those circumstances, but a representative of the government can perform such things without recrimination (and on more than one occasion did just that post-Katrina).
Moreover, government services are performed in as visible a manner as possible. Anyone who has watched some of the post-hurricane coverage has seen press conference after press conference after photo-opportunity of government officials from President George W. Bush to mayors, governors, FEMA and military personnel and the like, people whose job is to be seen doing “good” for political constituents. These things are done with the podium and the TV camera in mind.
The FEMA official who waved off the Wal-Mart truck was correct; FEMA did not “need” Wal-Mart to help. In fact, people from FEMA did not want Wal-Mart to help, as the company would have been able to steal some of the thunder that “rightfully” should belong to FEMA and other government agencies.