Foul-Ups

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In the wake
of Hurricane Katrina, this much has become evident to most Americans:
if you are prepared to rely on the federal government in a time
of emergency then you should be prepared to die. For all of its
bluster and bravado about its potency in protecting citizenry,
the centralized government is nothing but a bloated eunuch.

Usually I
can meet stories of government snafus with a cynical chortle (there
is something inherently funny in the idea that any organization
could spend $1500 on a toilet seat) but when one realizes, in
a case such as the recent hurricane disaster, that lives are being
destroyed, the incompetence loses all tinge of humor. Two nights
ago, within the span of a half of an hour, I was barraged with
a month's worth of stultifying stories of ineptness.

My wife and
I had spent the early evening going to discount stores to find
clothing for family members, whose house was submerged from Katrina.
We returned home and plopped down on the sofa. I began to watch
the 10 o'clock news and my wife checked her e-mail. My wife was
informed by a friend that a caravan of private individuals (who
had arrived at the Astrodome with barbecue grills and their own
meat) had been turned away by the Red Cross because they lacked
"proper training." (I never knew flipping burgers was
as technical as CPR.) My wife began to check the web for news
coverage of this story.

Our local
Washington news led off with
the story
of how the District had outfitted the D.C. Armory
with 400 cots to provide shelter for refugees from New Orleans.
Half-listening to the talking head, I caught only expected snippets:
"caravan of 10 busses from DC headed for New Orleans,"
" busses currently in Meridian, Mississippi" "heading
back — empty." When I heard that the busses were empty, my
head snapped up. The newsman went on to say that the caravan "couldn't
find any refugees." (How or where they searched for those
in need of shelter was never mentioned.) "But volunteers
who help set up the Armory shouldn't feel as though their effort
was wasted," the report concluded, "as refugees will
be flown into the District later."

Segueing
on the topic of flying refugees around, the broadcast cut to footage
from Tampa. The camera was trained on a giant military transport
plane with the rear ramp lowered and cowering figures slowly descending.
The voice-over told me that this flying behemoth, which looked
large enough to hold a small army, had helped in rescue efforts
by depositing
50 refugees in Tampa
. Fifty?! Why so large a plane and so
small a number of people? Why was such a colossal waste of resources
being heralded as an evacuation success?

In the meantime,
my wife had been able to
hunt down a report
of the über-bureaucratized Red Crossers
who turned away volunteer assistance. The anger of the truth of
the report was tempered by the fact of the dogged determination
of the private citizens. Rather than roll-over for the Red (Tape)
Cross, these folks set up their own aid station across the street.

I have always
had a respect for the Red Cross. But I now wondered if they had
gone brain-dead through coordinating too much of their efforts
with FEMA. Just as speaking of the appearing devil, the news continued
with a story of local Red Cross relief drives. Half paying attention
again, I expected just the obligatory feel-good fluff piece about
local folks giving generously in donations of various sorts. But
what I heard shocked me. The Red Cross was saying they would
not be accepting any clothes
for the hurricane victims, as
clothing wasn't what was needed. Instead, money is what the Red
Cross preferred. (After all, what fun is it to play with donated
goods when you can play with other people's money?) I don't know
who in the Red Cross hierarchy decided that clothes were not welcome
but I was surprised to learn this fact as I had spent my evening
looking for clothes that I knew that my family members
needed. But then again, who am I to argue with the central planners.

While watching
the horror and travesty that occurred at the Superdome and the
New Orleans Convention Center, it was in the forefront of my mind
that the only things that can be guaranteed in the presence of
"government control" of a situation are arrogance, incompetence
and obstructionism. Caravans of empty busses and giant personnel
planes with scant human cargo reinforced those beliefs.

When confronted
with the inane behavior of the Red Cross, I remembered another
caveat: private groups that become too enmeshed and intertwined
with government agencies eventually adopt the same can't-do disposition.

September
9, 2005

C.T.
Rossi [send him mail]
is a recent law school graduate who lives in Washington, D.C.

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