There are ways to handle national emergencies and ways not to handle them. Soon after taking office in early 1933, in the throes of the Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration pushed innovative legislation through Congress creating the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) as an interim first step in combating the economic collapse of the time. To head FERA and to spend the millions in government relief money authorized for the destitute and unemployed, FDR tapped former social worker Harry Hopkins, who later emerged as an iconoclastic star of the New Deal.
Within a half-hour of his formal appointment, the brusque, impatient Hopkins had set up his command desk in the crowded hallway of a government building in downtown Washington. Historian William E. Leuchtenburg vividly described the scene: "Amidst discarded packing cases, gulping down endless rounds of black coffee and chain smoking cigarettes [these were the '30s, remember], he spent over five million dollars in his first two hours in office." Hopkins eventually headed the WPA and served as Roosevelt's right-hand man during World War II, but nothing personified the New Deal's approach to crisis like his first day as the relief czar of a desperate, demoralized nation.
The New Dealers, short on ceremony but long on accomplishment, saw the dimensions of the task at hand and addressed it, cutting through red tape, bypassing regular channels and doing what needed to be done. That was then; this is now. The Bush administration's response to the calamity of Hurricane Katrina was light years away from the Roosevelt administration's reaction to the Depression. The scale of the current, ongoing disaster is different, of course -- smaller and regional rather than national -- but in character, it is much the same and, as such, demanded to be addressed in similar fashion.
Regrettably, the Bush team was AWOL as regards the Gulf Coast emergency. The detached president, preoccupied with vacationing at his nearby ranch in Crawford, Texas, made his first visit to the hurricane scene five days after Katrina came ashore. The heedless Republican Congress, which eventually voted $60 billion in belated relief and reconstruction funds, remained on holiday recess while the worst of the catastrophe was unfolding, taking action only 10 days after the fact.
The perplexed Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), top-heavy with unprofessional GOP political appointments, was remarkably slow off the mark and generally incompetent in assessing the situation; its director, Mike Brown, an inexperienced Bush loyalist who formerly headed (of all things) the International Arabian Horse Association, showed himself ill-informed and unsure how to proceed. A week into the disaster, there was still no energetic, coordinated response from Washington.
Nevertheless, the administration and its allies rapidly closed ranks and tried to ride out the storm, both literally and figuratively. In the face of what may prove to be the worst natural disaster in US history, its approach was almost casual. Said the Department of Homeland Security's head, Michael Chertoff (FEMA director Brown's boss), "We are extremely pleased with the response of every element of the federal government." The president affirmed that he was also satisfied with the response, if not the results, and then asked House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who had questioned the effectiveness of the government's initiatives, "What didn't go right?"
Other Republicans were more callous than clueless. House Speaker Dennis Hastert was heard to remark that New Orleans should be allowed to die rather than being rebuilt at public expense; it was a simple matter of money and practicality, he opined. And virtually all members of the GOP rejected responsibility for any shortcomings in crisis management; persistent calls for government accountability were dismissed as "playing the blame game," a deft political rejoinder that was in marked contrast to an otherwise inept performance.
Was there some deep-seated explanation for the missing sense of urgency and concern in the face of death, destruction and suffering along the Gulf Coast -- or, alternatively, was this just a routine instance of bureaucratic inertia? The bureaucratic mindset at FEMA and other government agencies no doubt played a role; yet, something else was at work. Prostrate New Orleans and its devastated neighboring coastline represented a quintessential "big government" problem requiring a "big government" solution, but except for antiterrorism, Republicans generally and the Bush White House, in particular, don't believe in big government at home, only overseas. As Ronald Reagan taught them a generation ago, government is always the problem and never the answer.
This antigovernment bias, which is inevitably slowing the recovery process, was equally to blame for the extended, multiyear run-up to the disaster. Economic losses from the hurricane have been estimated at $100 billion and 400,000 jobs; government expenditures for reconstruction are said to likely be in the $150 to $200 billion range. Yet, an expert analysis in Scientific American in 2001 indicated that New Orleans could have been made safe from storms like Katrina for a mere $14 billion in engineering upgrades to the city's antiquated levee system. That's half what we're spending per month in Iraq. Nonetheless, the conservatives charged with America's public health and safety deemed it a waste of taxpayer money.
So, there New Orleans sits, stewing in a toxic gumbo threatening both man and his environment, while European cities like Venice and Amsterdam show the world how to properly implement flood control -- and do it as an agreed-upon public task, not a privatized pork-barrel giveaway. There have been plans extant since 1998 for building modern sea gates at New Orleans to replace the aging and dated levee system; they haven't been built because the current administration views Calvin Coolidge, not FDR or LBJ, as its model for effective governance.
Perhaps if Halliburton had been in the flood-control business, something more would have been done. But avoiding the public shame that is the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by a massive prior commitment of publicly funded infrastructure enhancement to one of the jewels among American cities? That would have been big government in action, and no self-respecting Republican would voluntarily accede to such a dramatic level of federal domestic spending.
Public pressure eventually forced the White House to act. In his New Orleans speech of September 15, 18 days after the start of the emergency, President Bush finally called for a federal response somewhat commensurate with the situation. Nevertheless, with its emphasis on tax breaks, loan guarantees, job-training accounts and donated house lots, the program is less big government than big entrepreneurship, a true up-by-the-bootstraps GOP approach.
In the end, the ruling small-government ideologues lacked both the foresight to prevent the disaster Katrina brought about and the will or desire to respond promptly to its aftereffects.
Where were FDR and Harry Hopkins when we needed them?
Wayne O'Leary is from Orono, Maine.