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.