Ice Storm 2009
I've read on several blogs this week wondering why Kentucky hasn't been thrown in President Obama's face as his Katrina, or why his weak response hasn't been demonized in the press the way Bush's response to New Orleans was. And while I can understand the frustration over the all too obvious double standards of the MSM, these bloggers seem misguided to me. Jeff Taylor at Reason, however, hits all the right notes:
The reality is that even after the emergency management reforms allegedly implemented after Hurricane Katrina, help from far-off Washington still does little in times of fast-moving crisis. This view may be heresy in the age of federal bailouts, but it is still true.FEMA is by it's own nature slow and cumbersome, local response is always faster and more effective, and private citizens can be the best help of all. Read the whole thing.
To put the ice storm response in perspective, remember that it was not until the Clinton administration that the federal government was even expected to deal with winter storms. It took Clinton's shrewd Arkansas crowd to identify the political potential of turning states and localities into federal dependents via the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and related federal disaster assets. Soon enough state and local officials were petitioning Washington for any and all weather-related expenses. The result has been millions of dollars flowing out of Washington.
Natural disasters arbitrarily bring death and destruction. They act beyond the control of mortal man and his institutions, no matter how grand and well-intentioned those institutions may be. Furthermore, the iron law of all disasters is that it is nearly impossible to get aid quickly to people in need. Two corollaries flow from this reality. One, that it is always better to evacuate potential victims than to attempt to rescue certain victims. This, of course, is precisely what did not happen in New Orleans or in the path of the ice storm. Two, given that outside help will be unreliable at best, local ad hoc relief efforts are almost always more effective.
Enter David Strange, the enterprising figure the Associated Press calls the "generator man." Strange drove the hills and hollows of backwoods Kentucky delivering and setting up generators to those without power—at a $50 to $100 mark-up over retail. Willing customers included a dialysis patient and a powerless 80-year-old woman dependent on an oxygen system. They called him a "godsend," although Strange prefers "jack of all trades" or even "hustler." To Adam Smith, he would be recognizable as an agent of the invisible hand.
Also, it helps immensely to plan ahead for these emergencies at the individual level. Not enough Americans think about these matters in the age of flatscreens and Bu-Ray and Wii consoles and Iphones. The prepared family incurs the least hardship, and the best comprehensive disaster planning guide I've found is this five part diary at Daily Kos. It's carefully organized according to the logic that only comes after years of serious thought. I highly recommend it. (And yes, I'm linking Kos. It's that important.)