Four Reasons Why Government Failed in New Orleans

Published September 16, 2005

The public sector’s failure to respond quickly to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina becomes more apparent as the news media shifts its attention from reporting on rescue operations toward inquiring into the reasons why relief efforts took days to get fully underway. There seems to be plenty of blame to go around. But no one should have expected a well-planned, orderly, and timely government response to crisis.

The litany of complaints being heard in Katrina’s wake has been voiced after every natural disaster on American soil. Evacuation plans were not in place or incompletely carried out, first-responders were either unprepared or only slowly mobilized, supplies of food and water for refugees were inadequate and their delivery unaccountably delayed, and on and on.

Many of our local, state, and federal public officials are competent, energetic, and well-meaning. Why, then, are they so incompetent and inefficient when it comes to responding to natural disasters? Katrina vividly illustrates the four reasons why governments fail during emergencies.

First, government agencies are created by legislation, overseen by elected officials, and operated by huge bureaucracies. Fearful of being blamed if public employees do something wrong (or fail to do something right), each level of government attempts to control the one below it by imposing detailed operating rules that restrict underlings’ discretionary authority. The result is that the people who set priorities and make decisions are often separated by multiple layers of management from those on the ground who know what needs to be done.

As part of the massive reorganization of the federal government prompted by 9/11, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was absorbed into the maw of the fledgling Department of Homeland Security. Much like armies, which are said always to be preparing for the last war, in its new bureaucratic home FEMA devoted nearly all of its energies to developing plans for dealing with the next terrorist attack. Natural disasters got pushed far down the agency’s priority list, leaving it flat-footed when Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.

The government response to Katrina also was handicapped indirectly by the continuing insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. National Guard units, which otherwise could have been mobilized rapidly to deliver needed supplies and to protect lives and property, were instead deployed overseas. The local knowledge of citizen-soldiers from Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi–knowledge that is indispensable to responding to crisis–consequently was missing in action.

Second, since there is no profit-and-loss statement or “bottom line” against which to measure performance, government personnel move up in their agencies and bureaus based on other considerations. Most of FEMA’s senior management, for example, had never before been responsible for alleviating disaster.

The agency’s director, Michael Brown, who has since resigned, was appointed by President Bush more for political reasons than for his fitness for office. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Brown once served as a commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association. Moreover, he may have falsified his credentials by claiming to have been the “assistant city manager” of Edmond, Oklahoma, “with emergency services oversight.” Brown’s job title actually was “assistant to the city manager,” which means something entirely different.

Third, politicians are motivated primarily by the goal of reelection, which makes them shortsighted. Most of their decisions will be dictated by results that are visible and for which credit can be taken before the next election. This means politicians will tend to underinvest in infrastructure, which deteriorates slowly and often invisibly, and to postpone developing plans for coping with dire events that probably will occur on someone else’s watch.

Deficiencies of the system of levees designed to protect the city from storm surges have been known for years. Launched in the wake of the catastrophic flooding caused by Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the levee system had weak spots made more vulnerable over time by erosion and subsidence. Louisiana’s officials set the stage for Katrina by studiously ignoring the warning of Hurricane Georges, whose last-minute course change narrowly averted disaster for New Orleans in 1988.

Fourth and finally, corruption is more pervasive and more difficult to root out in the public sector than it is in the private sector. In the private sector, competition among producers and freedom of choice exercised by consumers cause markets to punish and squeeze out corruption. In government, congressional oversight committees and the occasional whistleblower attempt, often with little success, to do what markets do naturally and well.

New Orleans and the State of Louisiana are legendary for the breadth and depth of corruption infecting their governments. Billions of tax dollars over the years were diverted away from the private sector and from legitimate public programs that could have done much to strengthen the region’s economy and its infrastructure.

In the aftermath of Katrina, more heads undoubtedly will roll in the search for scapegoats. However, changing the identities of the people who manage public agencies does nothing to change incentives, so bureaucratic performance is unlikely to improve. Better people do not make better government.

Katrina’s main lesson ought to be that, no matter how much money and how many resources it commands, government is institutionally incapable of foreseeing and mobilizing prompt responses to crisis conditions. While privatizing some of the functions of FEMA merits serious consideration, at the end of the day people who choose to live and work in disaster-prone areas must learn to rely more heavily on themselves. Self-help, not government help, is the surest route to preparedness, relief, and recovery.

William F. Shughart II ([email protected]) is F.A.P. Barnard Distinguished Professor of Economics and holder of the Robert M. Hearin Chair at the University of Mississippi.