The derision directed by some Europeans, including German Chancellor Schroeder indulged, at the response to Hurricane Katrina contains two elements. The first is hatred of President Bush. The second is the alleged superiority of the European big government, dirigist model. As to the second, it’s worth recalling that France, the embodiment of the dirigist model, experienced many deaths when a heat wave struck Paris a few years ago. The French government’s response generally was considered scandalously inadequate, even though it’s far easier to act in the heat than when a city is underwater and large areas over three different states have been battered.
There are, of course, trade-offs when it comes to allocating duties among local, state, and federal entities. State and local governments, especially those in some cities, tend to be plagued by corruption and incompetent leadership. New Orleans is the embodiment, or rather the caricature, of this. Federal agencies usually aren’t particularly corrupt and they tend to attract more able leaders, but they are plagued by red tape and the related symptoms associated with large organizations of this kind.
These problems are inherent, and thus will persist long after the inevitable commission has issued its reports and the findings have been implemented. Nonetheless, given what terrorists may be able to accomplish in the near future, we need quickly to find some answers that will enable us to do better next time. For starters, big cities need to elect more Giulianis and fewer Nagins. At the federal level, the best approach is to identify the glitches that occurred at FEMA and address them within the context of FEMA as it exists now. Bureaucracies can learn at least a little from past mistakes, provided that they remain intact. To reinvent FEMA would be to invent a whole new set of ambiguities and barriers to impede the next big emergency response.
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