Monday, September 03, 2007

Surveying a Flood of Katrina Ink

Much has been written on the second anniversary of Katrina and the quality varies widely. Some of the best comes from Daniel Rothschild in his series of Myths of Hurricane Katrina for Reason. The first myth is the one the Democrat candidates were in town peddling: the purported lack of federal money. Rothschild writes:

“The federal government has already allocated a substantial amount of money to Gulf Coast reconstruction. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), as of July 2007 the federal government had appropriated $94.8 billion for Katrina recovery. Congress has allowed the National Flood Insurance Program to borrow another $17 billion from the government to cover the deficit it racked up paying out Katrina claims. The federal government has also created $16 billion in targeted tax breaks through Gulf Opportunity (GO) Zone credits and other programs.

So it's not a lack of funding that's the problem. It's spending the money. Under existing laws, FEMA can't simply write checks to Katrina victims. Some recipients would undoubtedly squander their funds, and there would be widespread fraud. This isn't idle speculation. According to the Government Accountability Office, immediately after Katrina hit, about a billion dollars of emergency aid—16 percent of the total—was lost to fraudulent claims. Even legitimately obtained pre-paid debit cards given to aid Katrina's victims were used to buy champagne, guns, tattoos, and porn.”

Frankly, I don’t have a problem with what those debit cards were used to buy (whatever helps them get by) and the guns in particular seem like a wise purchase, given the explosion of crime in post-Katrina NOLA. However, Rothschild’s overall point is taken.

Rothschild’s third myth is that “the Gulf Coast is suffering from a lack of leadership.” It turns out this is true only by the media’s definition of leadership—namely political and governmental leadership, which is also the case for nearly every region of the country. One example of innovative leadership cited by Rothschild came from, yes, that’s right, Wal-Mart:

“In Waveland, Mississippi, for example, the manager of the local Wal-Mart worked with the company's corporate officials to open a store under a tent in the parking lot, then later opened a convenient, easily accessible ‘Wal-Mart Express’-the first-ever store of its type-designed especially for post-Katrina Mississippi. Such creativity and on-the-fly adaptation and innovation on-the-fly would have been inconceivable from FEMA, which kept physicians from treating wounded evacuees because they weren't registered with the federal government, and kept firefighters away from those in need until they completed sexual harassment training, and courses on FEMA's history.”

There have been many non-profits active in NOLA taking direct action on a personal level to improve the situation. Organizations like the Jazz Foundation of America, the Stephen Spring Foundation, Tipitina’s Foundation, and the New Orleans Musicians Clinic have done heroic work responding to the needs of NOLA’s musicians. To see this myth of leadership being inextricably tied to governmental authority, one look no further than Larry Blumenfeld piece for Salon. At one point he writes indignantly:

“Republican Rep. Lindsay Hunter took that citizen-action theme one rather disturbing step further. ‘Government is inept,’ he said. ‘Bureaucracies are inept I see a great future for New Orleans based not on what government does for people but what free people do for themselves.’ . . . Moments later, discussing the problems with police protection, Hunter said frankly, ‘To the people of New Orleans, I have to say that’s a local issue. I can’t help you with that.”

Strictly speaking, Rep. Hunter is correct. Whether Blumenfeld likes it or not, we have a federal system of government. Crime is a local issue. Short of declaring martial law, the federal government can only do so much to fight crime, especially on a regional basis. However, the Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas makes the following recommendation to Pres. Bush:

“In his speech in New Orleans this week, Bush should say he’s ready to ask Congress for $500 million for the city’s police and prosecutorial forces over two years—but only if Nagin and Jordan make it their No. 1 priority to enforce the law rationally. And only if the city works with the feds to tie the money to measurable results, starting with rational arrests for offenses from quality-of-life infractions to homicide, more effective prosecutions and sentencings—and, ultimately, fewer crimes.

It’s an enduring mystery why Bush hasn’t used Katrina to show the world that America can rebuild a major city using bedrock conservative principles: law and order first.”

For Blumenfeld and others decrying a lack of “leadership,” would such an initiative be welcomed or seen as federal micro-managing? One article that recognized leadership need not have a government honorific attached to its name appeared in the Columbia City Paper. Magdalene Kellett pays tribute to average citizens showing real leadership, including the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund:

“As the fund grew, more people gave and other items were donated to victims including furniture and refurbished instruments. NOMRF has also helped supply high school marching bands with instruments. Anybody who has spent anytime in New Orleans knows the amazing talent these kids have.”

One often gets the feeling that those bemoaning a lack of “leadership” and demanding more spending really do no want things to get better in New Orleans. They prefer to have the city in a state of perpetual martyrdom, using overheated rhetoric designed not to build consensus, but cleave divisions. That’s why pieces like Rothschild’s are refreshing. It is always good to stop and survey the situation from a fresh, dispassionate perspective.