September 12, 2005

Disasters and Choices

I'd written a post on September 2 in response to Kanye West's ignorant statements made during the NBC telethon that "George Bush hates black people." This post led to an especially spirited comment thread, that I eventually locked down at 323 comments.

After locking down the thread, I received an email from someone we'll call "Spartakus" who took exception to this comment from poster calling himself "Sean John:"

I agree that all levels of the gov't failed NO. But the Federal Gov't knew - before Katrina hit -that the city and state did not have enough resources to handle this alone. We all knew that. FEMA knew that. BTW did you know that the Associated Press reported that the Army Corps of Engineers asked for $105 million for hurricane and flood programs in New Orleans last year. The White House carved it to about $40 million. But President Bush and Congress agreed to a $286.4 billion pork-filled highway bill with 6,000 pet projects, including a $231 million bridge for a small, uninhabited Alaskan island.

"Spartakus," as an government insider, had this to say in response:

I do not normally respond to blogs but found the thread on the issue of Kayne West's comments interesting. I was intending to respond to Sean John's statement "...the Army Corps of Engineers asked for $105 million for hurricane and flood programs in New Orleans last year. The White House carved it to about $40 million."

I work in resource allocation for a major organization of the Federal
Government ($700 billion). I wanted to point out to Sean John that cutting
funding like that is not uncommon. Why? Because (just like our own personal
lives) the total costs of government project requests are invariably always
higher than the funding available. In order to meet the limit of the annual
federal budget programs are reduced (or cut altogether) to meet the
established topline. We call this reduction/cutting of some programs as
"taking risk." What that means is that the program will take a reduction in
funding with the hope (an educated guess if you will) that it can handle its
mission utilizing a lower amount of money. Also, it is not done in an
arbitrary fashion, the reduction is usually taken where the agency requests.

An example is your own personal budget. Let's say that, rather than getting
your annual pay in 26 bi-weekly paychecks, I am going to give it all to you
up front on October 1st (the fiscal year). However, two years prior to that
you need to present me with a plan on how every single dollar is going to be
spent. You may also include items you would like to have, since I can only
give you a rough estimate of dollars you will have to spend.

Also understand you cannot "rob Peter to pay Paul." By that I mean your
"FY2007 Home Budget Plan" must be divided into many subcategories: Home Roof
Repair, Bathroom 1 Plumbing Repair, Fast Food Purchase from McD's, Fast Food
Purchase from Wendy's, Gas for Car A, Gas for Car B, Oil for Car A, New Tire
for Car A, Repair 1 flat tire for Car A.... (See how it works? This roughly
approximates the myriad of agencies vying for Federal dollars every year).

Now, since you planned for only 1 flat tire for Car A what do you do if you
have two? What you cannot do is take money out of your "Fast Food Program"
or "Home Roof Repair" because these are different agencies. You must pay
for the tire out of your Car A Repair funds. By not programming for two
flats you also took risk.

When I know how much money you can "execute" in FY2007 I will give you your
budget "topline." Invariably you will find that your topline is lower that
the available funding. So now you must cut some of your programs and in
doing so you must carefully evaluate each program and take risk when you
decrease the funding.

So the Federal Government and the Corps of Engineers took risk (the Corps
would have to show OMB what specific programs were to bet reduced/cut) when
they cut the initial request by $65 million. As we are now seeing, the
Federal Government will probably spend more than $65 million in direct and
indirect costs (indirect costs are those that we pay to our military and
governments employees who have responded. We would have paid them anyway
but we are paying them to do something in support of Katrina relief). The
government will probably pay these costs with supplemental budget
authorizations (but remember, cannot rob Peter to pay Paul usually applies)
although some of the burden of funding (FEMA, the National Guard, the
military) will be placed on agencies to fund (so they will have to find the
funds within their own organizations to pay, usually fuel costs).

Is it cut throat? Yes, it most certainly can be. But it is the reality of
government budgeting. Everybody wants a slice of the federal budget pie but
there is a limited amount of pie every year. [my emphasis -ed.]

To answer the blog threads of those who like to place blame for the slow
response I say it is too early to say. The problem with disaster response
is you do not get to really practice your plan. You usually have to execute
it in a real time situation and as Murphy's Law states: "No plan survives
initial contact with the enemy." Same is true for a disaster of this
magnitude. In the "hotwash" to come there will no doubt be enough blame
apportioned, but there will be success to highlight as well. Government
agencies usually end up learning from mistakes, it is unfortunate that
people must suffer during the learning process.

Something to think about,isn't it?

The federal government can't be there, at all times, being all things to all people. We've only got so much money to spend, folks, and we try to put it where it makes the most sense at the time. Even liberal Michael Kinsley recognizes that:

Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu and other Louisiana politicians, for instance, have been flashing their foresight all over the tube. They say they asked repeatedly for more money so that the Army Corps of Engineers could strengthen the levees, but repeatedly the Bush administration actually cut the corps' budget instead.

The Corps of Engineers itself is feeling pretty smug. It has long wanted money to build levees that would even survive a Category 5 hurricane, let alone a measly Category 4 like Katrina.

Sure, and if there were a Category 6 or a Category 473, there would be a dusty Corps of Engineers report in a filing cabinet somewhere, asking for money to protect against that one too. The Corps of Engineers has done many marvelous things. But it would cement over the Great Lakes and level Mt. Rainier if we would let it. Its warnings about natural disasters are like the warnings of that famous economist who has predicted 10 of the last five recessions.

Hinsight is 20/20, folks, but if Louisiana was all that interested in building additional levees, they could have raised their taxes in their states for their needs. They made the choice not to.

That was the wrong choice.

Posted by Confederate Yankee at September 12, 2005 05:56 AM | TrackBack

Are we so determined to cause the republic to be responsible for each person's desires and needs? Or are we a republic consisting of "the several states" (50 today); each with its own governing body and responsibilities? If we continue to demand that the federal government be the great provider responsible for all entitlement programs nationwide then we are moving toward communism - plain and simple. Our free capitalistic society is much more effective than a communistic or socilaistic government could ever be (review the outcome of the USSR). Look at the recorded/reported response of private sector corporations contributing money, manpower, and commodities to the Katrina relief efforts. They are responding faster than the federal government and with the right stuff. I doubt very seriously that Castro's government nor Cuba's primarily non-existant private sector could have responded to the NOLA disaster within even one quarter the time or with one tenth of the resources (per capita) as did our federal resources responded.

When you demand a federal government to preside over entitlement programs and many other social programs, it generates inefficient bureaucracies. Be careful what you wish for, because you may just get it.

Posted by: JohnY at September 12, 2005 08:22 AM

What slow responce? The feds were present before the storm hit. Subsequent to the storm, they have apparently moved as best they can with the road conditions and the flooding. But the obstiles that they met are not natural but the product of a disgusting local political situation. Both the governor and mayor suck. If you really want to do something to help our state begin writing to investigate these people and as many others in the state government as you can. What good does it do to attack Bush? My own opinion of him is poor as I think he is too liberal and too big government. But with national attention centered on LA think what a change you could make for us. We have been hampered for about 140 years by people like the governor and mayor and if you began an outside effort to rectify the situation, your would be helping more people in the future than you could calculate. Consider also that the responce was slow due to the fact that you had to have a gun to enter the city. NO has been a city controled by black gangs for about 35 years, in part thanks to efforts by Hanoi Jane in the 70's. Within the last 10 years you had to be nuts or a tourist to go to the city! Also, much of the government red tape was at the local level and is rediculous. You want a bloated fed department to cut the red tape in an idiotic local situation. It is amazing that the military is having to do this now. Stories are also emerging of the people in the Superdome and Convention Center being ruthlessly handled by the criminal element. Where were the NO police? Looting and generally not putting their asses out like they are supposed to. They need to be in jail! So please, get off Bush, help our state by writing the attorney general or the fed district attorney.

Posted by: David Caskey, MD at September 12, 2005 10:50 AM

The response to every disaster, whether natural or man-made, involves a chain of command. The actions of the Mayor and Governor are to me, as a former Fireman and E.M.T., incomprehensible. Where were the supplies? Where were the bus drivers? It's not that this hurricane sneaked up on a city, 80% of which is below Gulf of Mexico mean-high tide sea-level unnoticed! Heads should roll, but today they never do, they just bash Bush, and ask for more federal aid, when they can't account for all the money spent there for years!

Posted by: Tom Bosee at September 12, 2005 11:18 AM

I seem to remember that, after 9/11, or actually, ON 9/11, Republicans lined up to hang the blame for the whole thing around Clinton's neck. Sure, he had been out of office for 8 months. Sure, he increased anti-terrorism spending by about 500%, and took a shot at bin Laden, unfortunately missing. Sure, he convened the Hart-Rudman panel to study terrorism, and sure, that panel gave an in-depth report to Bush, chock full of recommendations that were ignored.

But no matter. This was Clinton's fault. Somehow, George Bush, the man who had been in charge of the country for 8 months at the time, had nothing whatsoever to do with it.

And now, a fortnight removed from one of the most shocking examples of incompetent emergency "management" in the history of the country, we are hearing, incredibly, that again the Bush administration is not to blame! "You do not get to practice your plan," says Spartakus.

But Spartakus misses the point. The problem is not that our plan wasn't "practiced". The problem is not that our plan needed to be "tweaked". The problem is that there WAS no plan! No command center, no one in charge, an absolute free-for-all.

Sometimes, I am amazed at how Bush seems to evade responsibility for everything that has gone wrong under his watch. And then I look at his sub-40% approval ratings, and I realize that maybe he's not getting away with it after all.

Posted by: dg at September 12, 2005 12:40 PM

dg, THERE WAS A PLAN. Multiple plans, in point ofact.

New Orleans had a written disaster plan, and Nagin did not follow it. Louisiana has a disaster plan, and Blanco did not follow it.

Please explain to me how President Bush is responsible for the failures of long-time Democratic governments on teh state and local level, who have known the threat of this kind of storm to New Orleans for over 150 years?

George Bush did EXACTLY as much as the United States Constitution would allow, and the FEMA response to Hurricane Katrina was on-time, and in far greater volume than was the response to smaller hurricanes with less damage areas, such as Hugo, Andrew, Iniki, Fran, and Jeanne.

If you don't understand our system of government, perhaps you should refrain from commenting on it.

Posted by: Confederate Yankee at September 12, 2005 01:56 PM