Katrina, One Year Later

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

PRESIDENT BUSH returned to the Gulf Coast yesterday and declared that a year's worth of rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina had created a "sense of renewal." Some renewal there definitely has been, but it has come slowly and clumsily. Areas such as New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward remain choked with debris. Schools, public transportation and utilities have yet to resume anything like full service. As of the end of June, the population of New Orleans stood at just 35 percent of its 2000 level. The scale of destruction was so significant -- the storm destroyed nearly 19,000 businesses and more than 200,000 apartments and homes -- that it would not be fair to expect complete rehabilitation one year later. But chunks of the Gulf Coast look as though reconstruction has barely begun.

The past year has generated three official reports on the disaster -- from the House, the Senate and the White House -- as well as numerous unofficial ones. Some of the ideas in these reports are digressions: With the Federal Emergency Management Agency having been disrupted by being folded into the Department of Homeland Security, it seems unwise to disrupt FEMA further by pulling it out of that department and restructuring it again. Equally, there's a debate as to whether the government's ham-fisted performance demonstrates that the response to future hurricanes should be left to private agencies: After all, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other businesses proved more effective than hapless federal agencies in quickly getting emergency supplies into the disaster zone. But the truth is that reconstruction after a disaster requires billions in public money, so a strong government role is inevitable. Besides, individuals and companies can't sensibly commit to rebuilding unless they know that others will do so. Because of this collective action problem, it falls to government to lead reconstruction.

The important post-Katrina lesson is not about less vs. more government, or about the government's organizational chart. It is about competence and leadership. The initial response to the storm was bungled, with New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin being slow to order an evacuation and the federal government slow to step in with assistance. Even more shockingly, the realization of the full scale of the crisis did not improve the quality of government decisions. FEMA spent $900 million on mobile homes that, because of its own regulations, cannot be used in flood plains. A Senate report has estimated that the agency allowed an additional $2 billion to disappear in fraud and abuse. Bureaucracy has slowed progress repeatedly. Of the $110 billion appropriated for rebuilding and assistance to victims, only $44 billion has been spent.

This is a lesson in the danger of entrusting the emergency management agency to political loyalists rather than experts. It is a danger that exists quite independently of whether or not FEMA is part of a larger department: During the 1980s the agency was stuffed with political appointees with dubious credentials, which explains why its response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was similarly incompetent. In the wake of that disaster, the agency was overhauled, and another wave of reform is in the works: The Bush administration has appointed a new boss for the agency; it has installed new communications and logistical systems; and it has worked on prepositioning relief supplies in disaster-prone areas.

The test will be whether this and future administrations sustain this new seriousness -- or whether the old complacency returns. That in turn will depend on whether there is more leadership than Mr. Bush provided in the first year, and a greater sense of urgency.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company