Ten Years After

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Romans 8:18-21

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:27

The question: “How should Christians respond to people who are in need?” is rhetorical. We know from Scripture, from self interest, from experience living in community, and in other ways that we should help people who find themselves in acute distress. When talking about poverty, students occasionally ask: “What can I do to help?” My regular response is “You need to find someone that in some way needs help and help them. You need to be involved personally with ministry that is helping someone else. At Cedarville University we can help you find your ministry role.” While individual one-on-one service is a necessary, fulfilling element of life in Christ, living in a society that supports individual ministry activity is important also.

Saturday August 29, 2015 is the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall. The magnitude of the destruction caused by Katrina is staggering. Government response failure at the local, state and federal levels is well-documented. Government was not (and it is not) as prepared as the private sector to respond to natural disasters. Christians need to be ready willing and able to serve other people when the need arises as a result of a natural disaster. To help Christians live the necessary fulfilling element of individual service to others for the cause of Christ we need to live in a nation that supports private sector service.

Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty Images
Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty Images

The above iconic image illustrates Walmart’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Before the federal government had signed the orders for the government sponsored bureaucratic disaster response, Walmart and other private businesses were prepared and already engaging in humanitarian service on the ground.

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University researches market oriented ideas in a very practical and useful way. The Mercatus Center has analyzed disaster response during Katrina in their Gulf Coast Recovery Project. Russ Roberts interviewed Pete Boettke for an EconTalk podcast aired December 18, 2006. The title of the episode: “Boettke on Katrina and the Economics of Disaster“. [The first 10 minutes of the podcast are an excellent introductory description of Austrian economics] To illustrate the private sector response to Katrina I would like to quote around a minute of the podcast beginning at approximately the 16 minute mark (this is my transcription – any errors are mine).

Pete: The real heroes of that crisis were the church leaders who actually violated what they were told by the officials, by “boating clubs” who came in with their little skippers and got people out. On one of our trips we went and talked to a youth minister who actually was responsible for getting 100 families out of Center City New Orleans because he was able to network with other Baptist Churchs right outside of New Orleans. They used a van they and violated the rules that told them they couldn’t come back into the city. They would come in get the people in the van and take them 10 miles out to another person who would bring them to different churches. They would go back in and get another family. Russ: Illegally? Pete: Well you know I don’t know –violating the bureaucratic rules at the time about what was safe – these people were real heroes because at great risk to themselves they responded to take care of their parishioners and care about their flock. You know in that regard that’s how they interpret it so that’s the real vibrancy of civil society. If you look at East New Orleans with the Vietnamese Catholic Community there and how they decided to start rebuilding right away. They got into communities what you would imagine in a movie like the way the Amish do a house raising … and they would get together and try to do that against all the building codes (people would say no, no you can’t do that) and try to get peoples lives back. So we have seen a tremendous vibrancy in civil society they’re recovering and going outside the bureaucratic system to respond to be able respond the needs of the people on the ground.

When the bureaucracy failed individual people rose up to help those in need.

Walmart is often excoriated, sometimes by Christians, for their business practices. Walmart’s response (as an example of the private sector – many other firms both big-box and smaller entities responded in a similar manner) to Hurricane Katrina is a text book case illustrating what the private sector can do in times of emergency. Stephen Horwitz published a 2009 article in the Independent Review: “Walmart to the Rescue: Private Enterprise’s Response to Hurricane Katrina“. I’d like to share some information from the article. In the weeks following Katrina’s landfall, Walmart shipped 2500 truckloads to the affected areas and also provided trucks and drivers for others wishing to ship supplies into the disaster region. Walmart’s response was immediate, compared to the bureaucratic government response which took days and weeks. Walmart empowered its managers on the ground to make choices and decisions in real time.

Wind and flooding severely damaged the Walmart in Waveland, Mississippi. Assistant manager Jessica Lewis, who was unable to reach her superiors to get permission, decided to run a bulldozer through the ruins of her store to scoop up basics that were not water damaged, which she then plowed into a pile in the parking lot and gave away to residents. Lewis also broke into the store’s locked pharmacy to supply critical drugs to a local hospital. p. 516

Jessica was praised by Walmart executives for her actions. What would’ve happened to someone in government attempting to exercise this degree of autonomy? I hate to think. This could never happen with bureaucratic structure. By the time the government worker received permission to “serve by bulldozer” grass would be growing through the cracks in the asphalt in Walmart’s parking lot.

Walmart, as part of their “business continuity” plan, was able to see that the Hurricane was approaching and use their complex distribution system to begin to put resources in place for quick turnaround when the Hurricane made landfall. Government bureaucracy is simply not able to provide the kind of service the private sector can. It is in a society organized by private enterprise that we best have the opportunity to serve.


13 thoughts on “Ten Years After”

  1. My wife and oldest son went down to MS/LA after Katrina as part of a coordinated relief effort by our (small) denomination. She came back confirming that the churches and private organizations were the real helps. In fact she said that “locals” told her that government agencies were generally obstacles to real relief and that groups like the one she participated in were of great benefit. I could go on; but I just wanted to mention a first-hand confirmation of what you and others in this article have said.

  2. You are understating the role that Republicans played in the federal government’s botching of the response to Katrina. Even the GOP House’s own report lays the blame primarily on the Bush administration.

    The 600-plus-page report , written by an 11-member House select committee of Republicans chaired by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), concluded that the lion’s share of the fault should be placed on the passive reaction and misjudgments of top Bush aides, especially Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security Operations Center, and the White House Homeland Security Council. Regarding President Bush, the report found that “earlier presidential involvement could have speeded the response” because he alone could have cut through all bureaucratic resistance,” according to the Washington Post.

    Blame should be placed as well on the New Orleans mayor, who erred in underestimating the coming tragedy. He has gotten his since that time.

    On the other hand, when it came to the federal response to Hurricane Sandy, the federal government’s response was highly praised, even by Republicans. The “hug” that Governor Christie gave to President Obama pretty much ended any aspirations the NJ governor had for the presidency.

    That said, I do not expect Republicans to blame fellow Republicans for their tragic neglect that cost close to 2000 their lives. Indeed, according to a 2013 poll, 29 percent of Louisiana Republicans say President Obama is more to blame for the botched executive branch response to Hurricane Katrina while just 28 percent blamed George W. Bush.

    When Katrina hit, the current president was merely a freshman senator! And yet he should be blamed more?!

    Talk about a lack of critical thinking! Talk about visceral hatred of, gasp, a Democratic president.

    Welcome to the modern GOP, eagerly supportive of a thrice-married womanizing, narcissistic,bigoted business incompetent to the position as leader of the free world.

    1. Hi Jeff,

      If your first sentence is referencing my post, I did not distinguish political party in the governmental response to Katrina – what I attempted to show was that the private sector helping others outside of the government’s role is / should be our primary response to natural disasters. I do not see this as being contingent on political party.

      1. The point I was trying to make is that government sometimes DOES good things when it comes to disaster relief. Katrina is THE case study of government incompetence, from the mayor of New Orleans all the way to the federal government. Don’t forget the role that cronyism played in the Bush administration (or was Michael DeWayne Brown the most qualified guy that could be found?)

        But the response to Sandy was much better. Clearly government CAN do good. Why not point THAT out? Katrina seems to be an outlier, not a consistent pattern.

        And as for private enterprise, to be balanced and fair its shortcomings should be pointed out as well.

        If the invisible hand of the market was so steady, the problem of price gouging during disasters would never exist (and government would not feel the need to pass laws against it).

        I would agree that WalMart did well during Katrina, but by failing to point out the large role the federal government plays in providing financial assistance to WalMart employees, you are not telling the entire story.

        According to one estimate that appeared in Forbes a couple of years ago, Walmart’s low-wage workers cost taxpayers over an estimated $6.2 billion in public assistance including food stamps, Medicaid and government subsidized housing. WalMart can afford to pay its employees so little because they know that taxpayers will take up the slack.

        How much of Walmart’s so-called good was paid for by taxpayers? At least some, for sure.

        Just so you understand where I am coming from, I am a moderate who opposes both anti-government fetishes (common among conservatives) and also anti-private enterprises fetishes (common among the left). That said, I do not subscribe to the simplistic notion that private enterprise always does better than government. I am suspicious of big government as well.

    2. Mr. Adams,

      Mistakes were made in the aftermath of Katrina, no one, including George W. Bush, denies that. In fact, he publicly accepted responsibility for mistakes made at the federal level. It should also be noted that prior to landfall, President Bush had declared a state of emergency and had instructed Homeland and FEMA to manage the disaster. Bush’s failing was not his own neglect but the neglect of those under him. The above article had nothing to do with party politics but yet here you are again spewing out your vitriol against Republicans. And as usual you only present one side of a complex situation. It should also be noted that Kathleen Blanco, governor of Louisiana at time, and a Democrat, also accepted responsibility for failures at the State level. Ray Nagin, also a Democrat, ignored both federal and State offers of help prior to landfall and ignored a recommendation to fully evacuate New Orleans. Only some of the city’s parish’s were placed on mandatory evacuation. In fact, most studies show that the majority of deaths ultimately resulted from this city and State resistance to early federal requests for evacuation, not willful neglect in the aftermath. Had local authorities properly done their job in getting people out before landfall, the assistance originally sent by FEMA might have been enough rather than insufficient. There is plenty of blame to go around for the Katrina aftermath, but it is hardly the singular fault of the Republican Party.

      But if we are going to throw around actual accusations of responsibility for death due to neglect Barack H. Obama holds a slew of gold medals in that category…
      You ascribe 2000 deaths to Republican negligence…
      Barack H. Obama then bears responsibility for deaths due to his neglect in the following situations…
      Libyan Civil War – 10,000 dead
      Syrian Civil War – 220,000 dead (UN estimate, Jan. 2015, so higher since then)
      Deaths due to ISIS – 10,000 (estimate)
      Obama’s neglect, or maybe just plain incompetence, is costing tens of thousands of lives around the world.

      If any modern President has shown they are neglectful, or incompetent, it is this one. And you know what, before you pull out your racism gun as you love to do, let me say that I am greatly disappointed that our first African-American President is such a failure. But of course, he really shouldn’t be known as that. Just as JFK declared he wanted to be known as the 35th President, not the first Catholic one, Obama is the 44th President of the United States, and he is a terrible one. And that has nothing to do with the color of his skin, but of his policies.

  3. Nathan

    Much of your response was off-topic.

    In addition, much of it is unnecessarily inflammatory, largely due to your own apparent lack of reading comprehension. and your unfortunate habit of putting words in my mouth (google straw man fallacy). But I am used to that from you. You shoot first, ask questions later.

    You accuse me of “vitriol” against Republicans. Why? Because I referenced a detailed report prepared in 2006 by largely Republican House members? Whom did I attack by name? Did I attack President Bush, or did I call attention to the obvious shortcomings of his administration?

    IF you had read carefully first, you’d already know the answer.

    As for balance, I noted the failures of New Orleans mayor. Or did you miss that?

    Sometimes government does wonderful things in response to human tragedies. Sometimes it royally messes up. The government response to Katrina is a national embarrassment.

    The one playing partisan politics seems to be you. I am a political independent moderate who calls them as he sees them. Right now the GOP is an embarrassment to this nation, with its strong support of Donald Trump and with its apparently race-driven animus to President Obama (what else could explain the La. GOP poll I referenced?).

    I suspect that many on this board agree with me, which is why discussion of Trump has practically disappeared from this blog. They are embarrassed too, as they should be.

    If you are going to play the silly game of who is responsible for deaths, to be fair you should point out the war in Iraq, a war demonstrably fought on dishonest premises (lies). Yet another national embarrassment.

    The financial cost over the next four decades: 5 trillion plus.
    The human cost: some estimates put it at close to a million.
    Yet another national embarrassment.

    1. Mr. Adams, if your intent was to show that government does do some things well, why does the first line in your post excoriate Republicans? Why–if your intent was not partisan–did your response fail to point out that the mayor and governor, both also culpable (arguably more than the feds), were Democrats? If your intent was to say what you believe, why not just say it, something like
      “Dr. Wheeler, I think your post fails to acknowledge that if government is led by those committed to its success the outcome can be much better in a crisis. As an example, consider President Obama’s response to Hurricane Sandy, which led to a remarkably different result than Katrina.”

      These words would have made your same essential point w/o getting into a very debatable partisan blame game.

    2. Mr. Adams,

      Ah, so it is ok for you to go off topic but not me?
      And to be blunt, your initial response to the post was the one off topic. The original post was non-partisan and did not single out any political party. Your response to that article singled out a particular political party, the Republicans, and while, yes, you did mention the mayor, you did not specify HIS party. If someone totally unfamiliar with Katrina had read your post, they could easily have inferred the mayor was Republican. When only one party is mentioned as culpable when clearly members of both were, can’t you see how a person might see that as anti-Republican “vitriol”? Seems to me the FIRST unnecessarily inflammatory statements came from you not me.

      In addition, you contradict yourself. You cited the Congressional report, by Republicans, criticizing a Republican administration, then later on made the comment, “That said, I do not expect Republicans to blame fellow Republicans for their tragic neglect that cost close to 2000 their lives.”. You cite one poll in support of that statement. However your own previous words regarding congressional Republicans blaming the administration flies in the face of that very same statement. Republicans DID blame Republicans.

      As for the Iraq war, I was going to be surprised if you did not attempt some sort of retort by citing it.
      To answer your absurd logic, inaccurate intelligence (a.k.a. WMDs) does not equate to dishonesty and lies. Again, for someone who claims to be a political moderate, you do an excellent job of parroting the anti-Bush and anti-Iraq war talking points. I do not deny mistakes were made in Iraq, but we only know there were no WMDs because we DID go in. Only in hindsight. Discovering our intelligence was wrong (intelligence which was believed true by not only the US, but much of the world including nations that were opposed to the war) in hindsight does not make Bush dishonest , and the plain truth is Iraq was willfully violating numerous UN resolutions, and, though no WMDs were found, Saddam was found to be in possession of other dangerous armaments he was not supposed to have. Whether he had WMDs or not, the invasion of Iraq by the Coalition forces was justified.

      And it should be noted that Saddam was given every opportunity to comply with weapons inspectors. Hindsight shows he did not have the weapons, so why didn’t he prove it to the world? Had he done so, the war might never have happened.

      You might want to read this article regarding the report made to the US Senate by David Kay, who lead the search from WMDs.

      The world is better off without Saddam. Early mistakes were made in Iraq which Bush corrected with the surge, which Democrats, and some Republicans, opposed, but which many now grudgingly admit worked. President Obama, in his haste to end the Iraq War and withdraw US troops has thrown away all that our soldiers fought and died for. That is the REAL national embarrassment of Iraq, not the war itself.

      And it was not me, but you who started, as you call it, this “silly game” of blame for deaths by blaming the Republican Party for the deaths of Hurricane Katrina. You are right, I am playing partisan politics. But you are the one who started the game.

      Have a pleasant day :)

      1. I am sorry, but I don’t have the time to address your unfocused rant fully (way too busy).Two quick points:

        1. “Hindsight shows he did not have the weapons, so why didn’t he prove it to the world?”

        How can one prove a negative?

        Let’s put the shoe on the other foot, for a moment: Can YOU prove that YOU did not commit a capital crime? If you cannot, does that means that we should arrest you?

        2. “The world is better off without Saddam. ”
        So the ends justify the means? That sounds to me like relativistic morality.

        Hussein was a thug, like many this nation has once supported (remember, Hussein was our ally in the early 80’s back when Iran was under Khomeini). But does that mean we have to spend trillions and make up justifications for war to take out every thug?

        That said, that the world is better of without Saddam is not readily apparent, considering the fact that many of the problems plaguing Iraq might not be there if Saddam were still in power.

        Some even attribute–and with reason, not with knee-jerk partisan “thought”–the rise of ISIS/ISIL and other such groups to the destabilizing effects of the war.

        And are you even considering the hundreds of thousands (or more) of dead?

        I don’t think so.

        How about the cost to taxpayers–perhaps $6 trillion (or more)? Funny how people often forget the costs associated with borrowing money for that fiasco, all the while attacked fully-funded social programs like Social Security as being drains on taxpayers.

        How about the suffering experienced by true American patriots–the veterans who shed their blood and sometimes lost their limbs to the war (while financially well-off college students sit in air-conditioned rooms on their I-phones)?

        Have you thought about THEM? Have you thought about THEIR pain?

        Perhaps you should ask them (all of them) whether or not they think it was worth it.

      2. I do not deny you have valid points, don’t get me wrong there. Like I said, mistakes were made. I do not discount the cost of the war. One of the greatest recurring mistakes the United States has made, going back to Woodrow Wilson and WWI, is the notion of replacing dictators with democracy. I get the argument that Saddam’s strong arm might have actually been better, I just happen to disagree on him specifically. Mubarak, Gaddafi, even Bashir Assad… all dictators that committed (and in Assad’s case, continue to commit) human rights abuses but the alternative to them is worse.

        As far as the ends justifying the means. it depends on the specific case. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. The classic example of that debate is the atomic bombs. If I had to guess, I would say you and I disagree on that.

        “Perhaps you should ask them (all of them) whether or not they think it was worth it.”

        Will all of them think it is worth it, no they won’t. But I think you would be surprised by how many DO think it was worth it. That is why there are so many rumors and reports of dissatisfaction with the current administration within the military and veterans circles because they feel their sacrifices, which they did indeed feet were worth it, have been betrayed by the current administration’s policies.

        “Some even attribute–and with reason, not with knee-jerk partisan “thought”–the rise of ISIS/ISIL and other such groups to the destabilizing effects of the war.”

        Another argument I understand and happen to take issue with. The war did destabilize Iraq, the Surge brought stability, but Obama cut and run before that stability was, for lack of a better term, stable enough. ISIS might never have arisen, at least not in its current strength, if not for the war, but there are too many other variables to attribute the war as the main cause. And that of course goes back to the previous point that many who felt their sacrifices were worth it feel betrayed.

  4. Bert–
    Great post. As a reminder to our readers, please note that the Walmart trucks in the picture were denied the right to deliver needed goods and services by the authorities for quite a period of time (>24hrs if I recall correctly). As your post points out, it is not simply that government fails, but that government often succeeds–succeeds in stopping private charitable efforts.

    This gets to a major difference between progressives and conservatives. Progressives believe strongly not only in community action, but that almost everything social should be done corporately through the arm of the state. They criticize libertarians for being “ruggedly individualist” and not caring about others since they don’t support state action for social purposes. Rather libertarian/conservatives love social issues, but believe they should be primarily voluntary social actions which will create a vibrant civil society. Your post is a great example of how a vibrant civil society will work harder, faster and smarter than a risk-averse, politically driven process.

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