Another black eye for FEMA, another feather in the cap of private initiative

First, commenter Eric H left a comment good enough to make me investigate his blog, and when I got there I saw this great post.

Second, he links to this article, which makes me regret that I don't haunt the Washington Post website for new updates.

Over the next few days, Wal-Mart's response to Katrina -- an unrivaled $20 million in cash donations, 100* truckloads of free merchandise, food for 100,000 meals and the promise of a job for every one of its displaced workers -- has turned the chain into an unexpected lifeline for much of the Southeast and earned it near-universal praise at a time when the company is struggling to burnish its image. [* - the article initially said 1,500, but this was corrected]
While state and federal officials have come under harsh criticism for their handling of the storm's aftermath, Wal-Mart is being held up as a model for logistical efficiency and nimble disaster planning, which have allowed it to quickly deliver staples such as water, fuel and toilet paper to thousands of evacuees.

In Brookhaven, Miss., for example, where Wal-Mart operates a vast distribution center, the company had 45 trucks full of goods loaded and ready for delivery before Katrina made landfall.

[Italics Eric's and mine]

Before the hurricane hit! That's prepared. Compare this with the weak response that FEMA has been able to offer. Granted, they are preparing for different tasks, but Wal-Mart is doing as good a job as can be expected of anybody, and FEMA is doing as bad a job as can be conceived.

Wal-Mart doesn't complain about being underfunded. It doesn't give firefighters sexual harassment classes in Atlanta. It doesn't demand you go along with its vision for disaster relief. And it didn't wait until disaster struck.

Last, is it any surprise that a business whose everyday activities include supplying the whole country with thousands of different items can handle disaster relief? I hope all disaster relief in the future includes cooperation with companies like this (and I hope this suggestion didn't just open the door to even more federal coercion of business).

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Wal-Mart, usually held up as

Wal-Mart, usually held up as Corporate Public Enemy #1, outshines FEMA in the philanthropy and help department.

I love it.

It's wonderful that Wal-Mart

It's wonderful that Wal-Mart et al are helping so much. I really mean that. However, there are a couple of other points that should be raised. One is a question: can or would the private sector do everything that FEMA or the Army Corps of Engineers should have been doing (whether or not they actually were)? Fixing levees (or building them in the first place)? Pumping out the water? Medical care? Search and rescue? Overall coordination of relief efforts to make sure aid gets everywhere it's needed? On that last I'm sure some will say it's not clear such coordination is necessary, but it's not clear that it's not either. Just because the invisible hand works under normal circumstances doesn't mean it works in a disaster like this. In short, should we make a leap from saying that the private sector could play a greater role to saying government should play none? Many might be tempted to do so, but I think there are still some gaps to be filled in.

Second, there is definitely at least a grain of truth to the CT claim (which Eric H dismisses) that FEMA was deliberately crippled and therefore shouldn't be considered a representative example of how government would or should function in this kind of scenario. To put it simply, you don't appoint a hack like Mike Brown to head an agency that you want to succeed. You don't slash its budget and tie it up with red tape. I can't believe anyone would claim that FEMA couldn't have done a lot better, and as long as that's the case generalizing from its failure to all of government is specious.

Hmm... I'd pretty much agree

Hmm... I'd pretty much agree with Eric: having incompitents and political hangers-on in charge is par for the course for and political organization.

On the other hand, private efforts have really helped. The company I work for basically set-up (and largely runs, through employee-volunteers) one of the shelters in the San Antonio area (see: https://www.satai-network.com/news/updates/shosu.asp?filename=09.08.05%20Katrina%20help.htm ), and we've gotten MANY coments saying it's the best-run shelter in the area, and that sort of thing is not even related to our business (it's a internet hosting company)!

We put that shelter together in 3 days, and the software we wrote to help organize the shelter (written also in about 3 days) has been so successfull that the other shelters in the area are now using it. (That kind of organizational task, keeping track of who's in the shelter, what medical needs they may have, etc., is mundane, but critically important to getting people the help that they need. And NONE of the gov't agencies (or the red cross, sad to say) had anything like it, even though you'd expect to need such a thing at *any* sort of large disaster-relief shelter)

After all of the burecratic mess that the folks at the shelter have been through, one of the best compliments that we heard (several times) was that folks FINALLY felt like they were being treated with respect, and were finally someplace where people seemed like they knew what they were doing. Most government agencies (perhaps with the exeption of the military) seem to lack the organizational/logistical compitence to handle a disaster situation.

As for clean up... It wasn't nearly the same scale, but I do recall private companies doing a handy job pumping out and repairing most of downtown Chicago after it flooded some years back (that was a man-made disaster: some city workers accidentally drove pilings through the bottom of the Chicago river, right into an underground tunnel system that ran through most of downtown. )

Generalizing from this

Generalizing from this example, which is representative of about 0.0002439% of all failed government programs, would in fact be specious. That's not what I was doing. I was pointing out that if Hayek is correct, than the general idea of the FEMA approach (one agency to bind replace them all) is a mistake. In any case, having political hacks and incompetent bureaucrats in charge of agencies is a 100% probability over time. The only objection seems to be when the *other* party's political hacks are in office. (I object to there being an office to be occupied by either party in the first place.)

By the way - nobody seems to have noticed this, but there are a lot of people making the "they undermined it, now they claim it doesn't work" argument, and they seem to be the same people who like to point out how electricity "deregulation" in California failed, or how the "free market" medical system in the US fails, or .... The primary difference is that FEMA was in fact given the funding that the elected representatives wanted it to have and that government funding has risen rapidly under this administration, whereas California has never tried a free market in electricity in my lifetime, and we haven't had a free market in medicine in this country in about 3-4 generations.