Posts tagged ‘Army Corps’

Katrina was Government Revealed

It frustrates me some when the government's Katrina response is cited as an example of government failure.  This implies that the government should perform better, but just didn't in this particular case because of some process or personnel problem.  But the government's Katrina response was not the government failing, but the government doing exactly what it always does.  Governments of all types are hard-wired to produce the mess we saw.  And it was a mess, as Ralph Reiland summarizes a recent NY Times article:

  • An estimated 1,100 prison inmates across the Gulf Coast collected in excess
    of $10 million in rental assistance and disaster-relief money. Crime pays! FEMA,
    in addition, distributed millions of tax dollars to people who used names and
    Social Security numbers belonging to state and federal prisoners.
  • A hotel owner in Sugar Land, Texas, has been charged with submitting
    $232,000 in invoices for evacuees who allegedly never stayed at his hotel,
    billing FEMA for purportedly empty rooms or rooms occupied by paying guests or
    hotel employees.
  • An Illinois woman who was living in Illinois at the time of the storm sought
    relief benefits by claiming she had watched her two daughters drown in the flood
    waters of New Orleans. The children never existed.
  • A Department of Labor employee in Louisiana, appropriately named Wayne
    Lawless, has been charged with handing out nearly 100 falsified disaster
    unemployment benefit cards in exchange for kickbacks of up to $300 per card.
  • In New Orleans, two FEMA officials have pleaded guilty to pocketing $20,000
    in bribes in exchange for inflating the count on the number of meals a
    contractor was serving to relief workers.
  • With the $2,000 debit cards distributed by FEMA for disaster relief, an
    estimated 5,000 people have double dipped, receiving both the $2,000 plastic
    card and a second $2,000 by check or electronically.
  • Two men, one a representative of the Army Corps of Engineers, have pleaded
    guilty to taking kickbacks in exchange for approving payments for removal of
    nonexistent loads of hurricane debris. In contrast, with loads of debris that
    were not nonexistent, a councilman in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, has been
    charged with attempting to extort $100,000 from a debris-removal contractor.
  • One creative scam artist is charged with collecting 26 federal disaster
    relief checks totaling $139,000 by using 13 Social Security numbers and fake
    claims of damage at bogus addresses. Others collected and pocketed hurricane
    relief donations by posing as Red Cross workers.
    All told, what the above
    represents is "one of the most extraordinary displays of scams, schemes and
    stupefying bureaucratic bungles in modern history," reports the Times, "costing
    taxpayers up to $2 billion."

Note that this isn't a unique failure - this story can be written about any government handout program.  And this wasn't a case of FEMA moving too fast without restraints when everyone around it was signaling caution - in fact just the opposite.  Everyone on the sidelines at the time was criticizing FEMA for being too slow in handing out money willy-nilly.

One of the problems never discussed very often is that increasingly, the government has insisted on an exclusive monopoly position for itself in providing disaster assistance.  In effect, past disaster assistance was provided by people you never see or hear about, private people taking private action.  In Katrina, the government worked hard to shut most of these people out.  So, in this sense, Katrina was probably a worse response than in other disasters because the bottom-up, thousands-of-people-helping-out response was not allowed.  FEMA, under pressure from both sides of the aisle, increasingly take the Al Haig "I'm in charge here" approach, much to everyone's detriment. 
Unfortunately, most analyses of Katrina are saying the government did not do enough.  I think it did too much.

Our Government in Action

A few weeks ago I responded to Economist Philip Verleger, a classic technocrat, who lamented what private industry had done with the auto industry and felt government run by smart people like himself could do better:

Suppose a government plan could revitalize the
automobile industry and the rest of the transportation sector, encouraging it to
leapfrog several generations of technology; suppose this same plan could cut
U.S. dependence on foreign oil to zero; and suppose, finally, that the plan
could develop new technologies that would bump our economy to a higher growth
path and foster U.S. economic leadership in the 21st century. Would that idea be
worth exploring?

I am not sure there are that many adults who don't also believe in Santa Claus who can imagine the government succeeding at this, but in case there are, here are some further thoughts on government efficiency:

But while Harrison County and all but one of its cities hired contractors on
their own, Jackson County and its cities, at the urging of the federal
government, asked the Army Corps to take on the task. Officials in Jackson
County said it was a choice they had regretted ever since.

The cleanup in Jackson County and its municipalities has not only cost
millions of dollars more than in neighboring counties, but it is also taking
longer. The latest available figures show that 39 percent of the work was
complete in Jackson County, while 57 percent was done in Harrison County and its
cities that are managing the job on their own, according to federal records....

Pascagoula and other Jackson County cities are sticking with the corps. But City
Manager Kay Kell of Pascagoula said she was disappointed. Her city had a private
contract to clean debris for $7.80 a cubic yard, but now relies on the corps,
which is paying its contractor $17 to $19 a cubic yard for the same work....

Officials in Jackson County and Pascagoula cite numerous reasons for the

One is the complexity of the contract the Corps of Engineers has with
Ashbritt, a Pompano Beach, Fla., company that is overseeing the debris
collection in Mississippi
and parts of Louisiana. Its 192 pages include sections on the type of office
paper the company uses and a ban on releasing information to the news media
without the written permission of the Army Corps. (Ashbritt officials declined
to comment for this article.)

Simply getting an agreement from the Army Corps on the exact wording for the
legal release document that residents must sign to authorize contractors to
clear their homes took several weeks, officials said.

Then the Army Corps and its federal partners repeatedly gave new demands,
such as satellite-based measurements on the location of each house, before
large-scale clearing could start, county officials said.