Still Waiting for Isabel

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It is 11 a.m. on Friday morning and according to the weather reports, Isabel was supposed to have stopped her relentless pounding about now. The government’s tracking map, which I pulled off the Internet, said the eye of the storm was going to pass directly over my house in Cumberland, Maryland.

We had made preparations, as had others here. We brought out the candles, the batteries for a radio, extra water, and we even boiled some eggs and purchased cans of tuna so there would be something to eat besides potato chips should the power go off. (There was no panic or hysteria here from what I could see, as people calmly went about their business, no pushing or shoving in grocery stores — with only a run on “D” batteries — and no long lines of people in a panic.)

Alas, we only received rain and a bit of wind, nothing destructive. (The Washington, D.C., area was hard hit, which means that a lot of bureaucrats were not able to go to work and harass law-abiding citizens today.)

Had the storm done extensive damage here, however, there would have been a gaggle of employees from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to have shoved money at us, and had anyone refused, no doubt someone from FEMA would have denounced that person as an unworthy citizen. Instead, the FEMA bureaucrats get to stay home and help their fellow bureaucrats, a "blind-leading-the-blind" scenario.

Once upon a time, there was little or no federal presence in the wake of natural disasters. From the carnage following the Chicago Fire of 1873, the Johnstown Flood of 1889, the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, the destruction of Xenia, Ohio, in 1974, and even the destructive Hurricane Hugo in 1989, rebuilding took place mainly through local and state efforts, with the help of private charities and insurance companies (many of which went broke after the Chicago Fire, not surprisingly).

Alas, that happy state of affairs came to an abrupt end with the advent of Hurricane Andrew, which demolished Homestead, Florida, in August 1992. Even that disaster — still the worst hurricane to hit this country — might have followed the typical course of rebuilding events, except that it came in the middle of a U.S. Presidential campaign between President George Bush and Bill Clinton.

Even before the rain had stopped falling, Clinton was denouncing the Bush Administration for "not doing enough" to help distressed Floridians and Louisianans (the hurricane spent its last days in Louisiana and eastern Texas) in the aftermath. Indeed, FEMA and the Bush Administration were doing very little, as that was how things had been done, but the Bush Administration, already far behind in the polls, panicked and sent in the troops.

What followed was a madhouse. Government facilitators (an oxymoron?) within FEMA were hardly equipped to deal with a disaster of the magnitude of Andrew, and to make matters worse, the stricken states had imposed harsh "price gouging" policies that were sure to paralyze the recovery efforts. Furthermore, the efforts by FEMA — pathetic as they were — were being measured through the distorted lens of a political campaign. Indeed, Clinton was partly correct; FEMA’s bureaucrats were performing like the Keystone Cops, and it was done in a very public way. Thus, Clinton successfully countered with the "If I were president…" line that resonated with large numbers of Floridians who were living in tent cities (erected by FEMA) and who had to stand in line for nearly everything.

The Clinton Administration made good on its promises, and, as one might expect from that gang, FEMA became a politicized campaign tool for the Clintons. The great libertarian writer James Bovard clearly outlines the FEMA shenanigans in his expos of the Clinton Administration, Feeling Your Pain. From the Mississippi River floods of 1993 to every natural disaster that occurred in his eight years in office, Clinton turned FEMA into a cash dispensing machine that, in the end, made recovery slower and invited abuses, as crooks and charlatans were able to take advantage of this political vote-buying system.

The first reaction from agnostics here might be this: "What is wrong with the government helping people after disasters? Shouldn’t we expect the government to be helping us get back on our feet?"

The answer comes in two parts. First, if one cares about the law of the land, such provisions are not made in the U.S. Constitution; it is clear that the founders of this country never conceived of the U.S. Government becoming the central agency to deal with inevitable domestic disasters, both natural and man-made. Thus, even in the wake of the Johnstown Flood, which killed more than 2,000 people and wiped out the town, it never occurred to the people in Johnstown or to the numerous individuals and organizations (like the Red Cross) that the government bail them out.

Second, because government is a political institution, the prospect of abuse and what Lew Rockwell has called "political blackmail" is quite real. Government’s intrusions into a post-disaster situation will always crowd out the private, state, and local entities that have the vital information to make the rebuilding process operate more smoothly. It is yet another example of what Austrian economists have described as the "knowledge problem."

That FEMA’s actions are not simply benign workings of compassionate people was played out several years ago in the wake of Hurricane Opal, which devastated a number of communities in the Southeast, including Auburn, Alabama. As Jeff Tucker noted, the cleanup in Auburn, which began immediately after the storm, came to a screeching halt once it was announced that FEMA money might be on the way.

Tucker’s insights were not appreciated by Morrie Goodman, then FEMA’s director of communications, as noted in a couple of articles. Goodman called Tucker and proceeded to berate him for criticizing his agency. (Tucker, as readers can see, firmly held his ground.)

It was clear from that exchange that the people at FEMA expected gratitude from those who were "helped" by the agency, which is exactly how political patronage works. Not surprisingly, the unscrupulous and ethically-challenged Clinton Administration used what previously had been a backwater government agency and turned it into a vote-buying machine that doled out cash and favors in an attempt to shore up political support. Furthermore, the agency came complete with its own propaganda machine that would have made Stalin proud, and made sure that it brought the adoring media hordes into the mix.

In the end, we have the permanent presence of FEMA, which is guaranteed to make it more difficult for individuals to bring their lives back to normal after disasters. We in Western Maryland can be thankful not only that Isabel did not do the damage that was predicted, but even more so that agents from FEMA won’t be running our lives for the next few months.

September 20, 2003

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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