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The Lesson of New Orleans The Power of the Liberal Taboos

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Disaster: When You Want Solutions

by Christopher Chantrill
September 11, 2005 at 6:33 am


THERE IS no doubt that the Bush administration made a big blunder in its planning for hurricane Katrina. It had planned for hurricane relief in which FEMA assisted the state and local governments in getting help where it was most needed, based on the assumption that local resources could hang on until 72 to 96 hours after the disaster. That is why ever since 9/11 state and local governments have been showered with federal funding as First Responders.

Where the feds failed was in planning for another contingency, one that, in hindsight, any fool should have thought of. They should have planned for dealing with dysfunctional state and local governments that had utterly failed to prepare or to execute their disaster recovery plans, or both, but like dysfunctional families were world champs in the blame game.

But how would the feds know when a local government was dysfunctional? Here is a clue. When the local officials yell: Send everything, communicating that they haven’t a clue, you switch to Plan B. When they yell: The President doesn’t care about black/poor people, it is already too late.

Conservatives are always taken by surprise when the Democrats wave the bloody shirt of class and race, as now in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. We shouldn’t. That is how their politics works. It is not based on sensible, practical discussion of the issues, but on the raw emotions of rage and fear. You identify a need. You blame racism, classism, or sexism. You issue demands for new government programs and increased government power. Then you publicize horror stories about the sufferings of the helpless victims.

On This American Life on the weekend of 9/11, Ira Glass executed the politics of the bloody shirt flawlessly, with appalling stories of victimization and racism in New Orleans. One angry victim even complained that her government had betrayed her. That segment was next to a clip of Bill O’Reilly advising Americans not to rely on government to save them.

You can see the beauty of the racism/sexism/classism narrative. It has everything needful in a political ideology. It explains everything, and it explains it in a way calculated to provoke people to rage and to political action. “They” should have done something! “They” don’t care about people like us!

But then there was the segment about the woman who finally got out of the city when she got her union president on her cell phone. He was able to get her across the bridge to safety. And there was the woman in Atlanta, her house bursting with family from the devastated area. Prompted to demand help from the government, said that that she didn’t know about that. She was just helping her family.

There’s a moral here, courtesy of NPR. When the government betrays you, only the little platoons will save you.

So government is a bust. What about America’s big corporations? According to The Wall Street Journal, businesses from Wal-Mart to Home Depot are reacting massively and effectively to the crisis.

Home Depot’s “war room” had transferred high-demand items--generators, flashlights, batteries and lumber--to distribution areas surrounding the strike area. Phone companies readied mobile cell towers and sent in generators and fuel. Insurers flew in special teams and set up hotlines to process claims.

Wal-Mart had reopened all but 15 of its 126 stores shut down by Katrina, and had opened mini Wal-Marts to hand out goods to survivors. Pfizer piggy-backed on Wal-Mart’s supply chain to dispense pharmaceuticals. “‘What companies do is solve problems,’ says Johanna Schneider, an executive director at the Business Roundtable.” Governments, on the other hand, respond to problems.

If you want to solve a problem, turn to business. If you want to respond to a problem, turn to government, but don’t expect a solution. Oh no. Government is not in the problem solution business. That is why government programs never end, they only get bigger.

As we conservatives go forward with our imperfect program to reduce the vast Leviathan that has been created over the last century to respond to poverty, to respond to racial segregation, to respond to crime, respond to drugs, we should keep this truth in mind. Government is the domain of the First Responders. If we want to solve problems we must revive the little platoons—the families and the unions that rescued This American Life’s victims—that have withered in the shade of the Responder State. And when it comes to the big battalions, we should choose big business over big government to get the job done.

If the response to Katrina’s failures is another layer of government, we had better start laying in supplies for the next big one. For we will know that our elected responders don’t plan on a solution any time soon.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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