It's Broke--Fix It

The problem in New Orleans isn't FEMA but federalism.
by | April 2006

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.

It's surely not hopeless. Katrina's aftermath produced real heroes, including senior Coast Guard and National Guard officials, many community leaders, and a host of government managers at all levels who simply pushed the rules aside and did what had to be done.

We know from 9/11 that government's response to the attack on the Pentagon worked remarkably well because of finely honed coordination that officials had wisely practiced in anticipation of a traumatic event. If we build the relationships in advance, we get off to a better, quicker start when disasters occur, and we can sustain the recovery efforts much more effectively.

Thus, the good news is that strong leadership can conquer the inescapable pathologies of our intergovernmental system. The bad news is that, like a cranky old furnace in a wonderful, rambling house, the system can't be left to run on its own. We can't do without the furnace, and the house has so much charm that we don't want to tear it down. But if we don't tend to the system, we'll find ourselves freezing yet again when we need the heat most.

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