Federalism Disad

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Federalism Bad – Natural Disasters

Katrina proves that federalism makes the U.S. uniquely vulnerable natural disasters and other catastrophes.

Governing Magazine, 2006

(The problem in New Orleans isn't FEMA but federalism, April 2006, Lexis)

As I stood a few weeks ago amid the flattened ruin of what used to be New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, I learned two inescapable lessons. One was that, no matter what you've heard or read about Katrina, you won't understand the devastation until you see it up close. The scene in New Orleans left even the most jaded government officials on our tour utterly speechless. The other lesson is Katrina's searing judgment on American federalism. Even though everyone knew that such a storm would some day come, the system was profoundly unprepared. American governments at all levels had spent the four years after 9/11 vowing to be better prepared for catastrophe, and exercises in 2004 actually predicted what a Gulf hurricane could do. Yet Katrina paralyzed public services on an epic scale. Much of New Orleans remains little changed from the day the water was finally pumped away. In the Lower Ninth, bulldozers came down the streets to push the debris aside, so security and emergency vehicles could negotiate the roads. But there are almost no FEMA trailers. FEMA won't bring in trailers in the absence of electricity and water. There is no electricity because there are no power poles. Repairing the water lines, some experts estimate, will take 18 months once the job starts--and it has not yet started. Contractors are clearing mountains of debris, sometimes piled five stories high for blocks on end. Federal aid is trickling down to local residents eager to get back to work, but local officials complain that out-of-state contractors are siphoning off much of the cash before it reaches them. Across the halting process of recovery, the entire idea of intergovernmental cooperation has become a joke. Startlingly blunt reports from Congress and the White House continue to shift responsibility across the system. But at the bottom of the brawl lies a simple question: Is American federalism, a remarkable invention by our founders to keep a new nation from splintering, up to the challenges of the 21st century? A system with deputy sheriffs guarding parish boundaries with shotguns, and federal officials unresponsive because the right clearances don't arrive on the right forms, surely isn't the kind of federalism we need. Many of the same forces--with boundaries guarded by sharp words instead of shotguns--often plague day-to-day issues as well. It might be argued that homeland security planning has focused on terrorism since 9/11, so the storm hit our blind spot. But, given the post-Katrina performance, could we expect that the response to a major terrorist event would be any better? The really worrisome issue isn't the failure of immediate response to Katrina--it's the inability of the intergovernmental system to bounce back. Yet we know (whether it's the Big Earthquake in California, another major hurricane on the East Coast, an avian flu pandemic, or a terrorist attack) that we're going to have to rise to similar post-disaster challenges again. Perhaps soon.

Louisiana and New Orleans’s response to hurricane Katrina proves that federalism leads to natural disaster mismanagement.

The Daily Standard, 2006

(After Katrina; Three things President Bush could have done to curb the political fall-out, 8-28-2006)

HURRICANE KATRINA caused the greatest natural disaster in American history. President Bush couldn't change that. But Katrina also was a political disaster for the president. And Bush, given a year to think about it, realizes he could have avoided that.What might the president have done differently? At least three things, starting with his decision two days after the levees broke--and New Orleans began to flood--to fly over the city in Air Force One without landing. Bush now knows he should have landed. That he didn't a year ago was perfectly understandable. The New Orleans airport had only one runway open and it was clogged with planes bringing in emergency supplies to the city, 80 percent of which was under water. The president would have had to go by helicopter around the city and region, and all the choppers were still on rescue missions. And he might have gotten in the way of emergency crews. Moreover, the Secret Service thought it was too dangerous in New Orleans for Bush to tour the damage. So Air Force One merely dipped to give Bush a look from the air and then flew on to Washington, leaving the impression that the president didn't care much about the plight of New Orleans, a predominantly black city, and its people. In hindsight, Bush had another option which now seems obvious at the White House. He could have landed in New Orleans, stayed at the airport, talked to a few leaders and citizens, expressed his concern for the city and the entire region, and then flown to Washington without having interfered with emergency operations. His appearance on the ground would have prevented the unfair criticism that he'd settled for a fly-over because he didn't care about blacks. A second avoidable mistake involved the reluctance of Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco to declare a mandatory evacuation of the city. Federal emergency officials urged Nagin to evacuate the city before Katrina hit. Bush personally called the mayor on the morning of the hurricane to press him to require all residents to leave. However, the president did not go public with a plea for an immediate and full evacuation. He should have. Bush and his aides realize he was far too deferential to Nagin and the governor. He should have lobbied them publicly, not just privately. This was a bit out of character for a president who believes in federal power and what it can achieve. Federalism and the law, though, left it to local and state officials to force an evacuation and manage it. They failed on both counts and made the bad situation in New Orleans breathtakingly worse.

Federal control over natural disasters would create uniformity -- minimizing the impact of natural disasters via stricter legislation.

Governing Magazine, 2005


Could a reshuffling of responsibilities have prevented flooding in New Orleans? Perhaps state and local leaders would have invested their own funds in the levees were they, rather than the feds, on the hook for any consequence of failure. On the other hand, it's inconceivable that a poor state such as Louisiana could be expected to pick up cleanup costs that may top $200 billion. Still, aligning risk with responsibility is a fair idea. Were states (along with insurance companies) liable for disasters, the United States would probably look quite different. Eastern and Southern states might have fewer people living near the coasts--especially on sandy barrier islands that literally wash away in storms. Pacific Coast states might have fewer people living atop earthquake faults. And booming Western exurbs might approve fewer subdivisions in forests where there's a big risk of wildfires.
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