Disaster Relief

Government can’t do it.  This isn’t the fault of liberal government or conservative government—government can’t do it.  Only private enterprise and the community of individual volunteers can.

Look at the failures of government response to Katrina, including the failures of the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans to do anything at all other than to cry out for Federal relief—and in the case of Governor Kathleen Blanco, a failure to do even that until it was too late for the Feds to be even a little useful.  Then there’s the failure of the Federal relief efforts.  There remain temporary homes in Louisiana depots unused because of bureaucratic failure to get them emplaced and allocated, just as one example.

Private enterprise—Wal*Mart (food, clothing donations, delivery truck capacity), Home Depot (support centers for providing reconstruction materials), Ford Motor (160 used trucks, vans and SUVs for use in the relief effort)—arrived promptly with its own relief effort in progress by the time the Feds arrived.

Private charity and NGO—The American Red Cross, Feeding America (then America’s Second Harvest), Southern Baptist Convention, Salvation Army, Oxfam, Common Ground Collective, Emergency Communities, Habitat for Humanity, Catholic Charities, Service International, “A River of Hope”, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and many others charitable organizations had major roles in the relief effort.

Individual volunteers with expertise—electrical power restoral, flood relief and water damage repair—flowed in from out of the disaster area.

Look at the manifest failures of the governor of New York, the mayor of New York City, and the Federal government with Sandy.  There are lots of photo ops, many tours of the disaster areas, an initial attempt to divert massive police, sanitation, etc resources from relief effort and residential neighborhood security to support a marathon race.  And millions of Americans in New York and New Jersey still are without power, heat, clear roads, fuel for their transportation, even homes.

On the other hand, Verizon, for instance, had 95% of its cell service back up and running within 24 hours of Sandy’s landfall in the affected areas.  AT&T, et al., weren’t far behind.  Home Depot (those guys again) has activated its Disaster Response Command Center and is coordinating merchandise movement and working with the Red Cross (those guys again) for relief effort.  Wal*Mart, by last weekend alone, had donated 60 pallets of dry food and beverages and nearly 6,000 cases of cleaning supplies.

Private charity and NGO—all those listed above—are active in their own roles.

Volunteer utility workers have flowed in to help with power restoral, marathon runners, with their contest cancelled, switched to doing their own resupply efforts to beleaguered neighborhoods, relying on shank’s mare to get supplies in where motorized delivery couldn’t go.

William McGurn, writing in Monday’s Wall Street Journal, argues that these failures demonstrate the failures of liberal government.  From this conservative’s perspective, McGurn makes some good points:

…the great vulnerability of 21st-century American liberalism: an inability to set the priorities necessary for good government.  As a result, government grows both bigger and less capable, especially for people who do not have the resources to fund other options.

He’s right as far as he goes, but as I opened this post, this isn’t a failure of liberal government alone—it’s a failure of government.  This isn’t because the wrong people have the wrong ideas, but because the idea is wrong.  Government cannot do disaster recovery.

Government has an important role to play in disaster recovery, but that role is coordination; assistance in allocation of effort and resources; short-term, stop-gap, hand up funding.  It is not the doing itself.  As I wrote here,

Government didn’t build anything; it just acted as middle man for a small part of all that private building.

Disaster relief is just a subset of that building.

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