Government Failures During Natural Disasters Prove We Need Government During Natural Disasters (or Something)

November 7, 2012 | Posted by Enrique

Other than the election outcome, the other big disaster to befall America in the last week was Hurricane Sandy, which claimed the lives of more than 100 people, left millions without power, and contributed to gasoline shortages in the Northeast U.S. Although the public officials at all levels have failed time and again to provide adequate responses to natural disasters, acolytes of an activist state have argued we need Big Government now more than ever.

For our story this week, let’s examine how the government typically compares to the private sector when responding to disasters, and ask what exactly the state has done to earn the benefit of doubt from its benighted supporters.

The story so far…

They’re here to help

Providing support during natural disasters has typically been understood as a legitimate function of government. Obviously, local governments and the first responders they employ are in the best position to offer the most valuable assistance. But in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a lot of partisan public officials and their water carriers (ahem) in the MSM saw an opportunity to use that tragedy as a way to bludgeon then-president George W. Bush – and disaster recovery has largely been understood as federal government responsibility ever since.

You may recall that the performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in response to Katrina is widely regarded as a complete failure. FEMA’s disaster relief was tragically late in arriving, and government at various levels stood in the way of recovery. For example, complicated permit requirements by the city and federal governments kept New Orleans residents from rebuilding for years after Katrina hit.

But for devotees of an activist state, no amount of failure is evidence that we should not rely primarily on government for disaster relief. Last Monday, before the impact of Hurricane Sandy had been felt, the New York Times ran a pre-emptive editorial with the headline “A Big Storm Requires Big Government.” Even by the standards of an organization that employs Paul Krugman, it was hack work, characterizing Republican criticism of FEMA as: “Many don’t like the idea of free aid for poor people, or they think people should pay for their bad decisions, which this week includes living on the East Coast.” You forgot to call them racist.

So one week later, how has government performed? For one thing, it’s worth noting that government officials in New York have known for years that flooding from storms could cause terrible damage, and have not taken steps to heed experts’ warnings. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s a story from the New York Times:

For nearly a decade, scientists have told city and state officials that New York faces certain peril: rising sea levels, more frequent flooding and extreme weather patterns. The alarm bells grew louder after Tropical Storm Irene last year, when the city shut down its subway system and water rushed into the Rockaways and Lower Manhattan.

On Tuesday, as New Yorkers woke up to submerged neighborhoods and water-soaked electrical equipment, officials took their first tentative steps toward considering major infrastructure changes that could protect the city’s fragile shores and eight million residents from repeated disastrous damage. […]

With an almost eerie foreshadowing, the dangers laid out by scientists as they tried to press public officials for change in recent years describes what happened this week: Subway tunnels filled with water, just as they warned. Tens of thousands of people in Manhattan lost power. The city shut down.

“A Big Storm Requires Big Government.” Puh-lease.

You know who prepares better for disasters than Big Government? The private sector. Last year when Hurricane Irene hit the east coast, the Waffle House continued to operate even in some places where power had been lost. The Waffle House’s disaster preparedness includes a mobile command center, portable generators, and explicitly defined procedures for reopening after a disaster.

Waffle House didn’t develop these disaster recovery protocols out of the goodness of its corporate heart. It developed them because if they’re the only restaurant open in the aftermath of a disaster, they stand to do big business. The Waffle House disaster menu is limited and affordable, so people without power can enjoy a hot meal at a fair price, without having to rely on government. Waffle House’s disaster recovery metrics are well regarded enough that they have even been used by FEMA.

Speaking of having to rely on government, its response in the wake of Hurricane Sandy has left a lot to be desired. As of Monday, over one million people were still without power in the Northeast. People counting on the government to provide them with supplies did not receive world class service:

Evelyn Perez, another neighborhood resident, asks, “Where the hell is the electricity: we’re in big city. I can see 24 hours [without power] but enough is enough.” The trucks finally arrived, but the National Guard was instructed to distribute one MRE and two small bottles of water per person—and judging by the number of people on line, it was unclear if they had enough to go around.

In Red Hook’s Coffey Park, a family at the front of the line started waiting on line at 12:30 p.m.—they’d been without power, heat, or hot water for days. The trucks, eight in all, didn’t arrive until 4:30 p.m., but when they finally pulled up it seemed that they brought enough to go around, at least for the estimated 200 people waiting. The lieutenant in charge of the food distribution told us they would be giving out twice the amount of bottled water and MREs than planned (2 and 3 per person was upped to 4 and 6, per person).

By comparison, the private sector has responded by giving away free food much more efficiently than Big Government ever could: “The NYC Food Truck Association and JetBlue Airways announced they will be offering free meals to folks still without power in parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn…The trucks will be giving away 11,000 meals at seven different sites, acting as an alternative to the National Guard.”

Meanwhile, the New York Post has reported that city generators that had been meant for the canceled New York City marathon were sitting around unused as of Monday. But remember, “A Big Storm Requires Big Government.”

Another consequence of Hurricane Sandy has been gasoline shortages. Again, Big Government has only served to exacerbate the problem. New York law prohibits price gouging, so gas station operators did not respond to the supply interruptions and demand spike by raising prices. Thus Big Government prevented consumers from facing exorbitant prices.

It also prevented consumers from getting gas, because the gas stations ran out without any way to restock. If gas station owners had been able to respond to the sudden market fluctuations by raising prices, consumers might not have been able to fill up their tanks – but they would have been able to buy some gas, and what gas there was would have been distributed over a wider population.

As it happened, with anti-price gouging laws, the people who got there first bought up all the gas and everyone who came after got nothing. Actually, that’s not accurate – they got the opportunity to buy gas from those who got there first, at a 100%-200% markup that reflected the market price. Plenty of people were willing to pay that price.

It appears that the laws against price gouging didn’t prevent price gouging. But that’s okay – I presume those folks appreciated being able to choose between buying expensive gas or buying no gas. With Big Government anti-price-gouging laws, the only option was no gas.

It’s far from clear that Big Government has performed well or even adequately in its response to Hurricane Sandy. And there are plenty of examples that suggest the private sector and market forces are better at providing relief in the wake of disasters than the government. Even so, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, there will always be those who assume only Big Government can respond to disasters effectively.

With another big storm hitting the Northeast as I write this, let’s hope Big Government does a better job than it ever has in the past. If its offices are open, that is.

A Big Storm Requires Big Government


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