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An unnatural disaster

Robert Tracinski has written an interesting article laying out why he thinks what happened in New Orleans was a man-made rather than natural disaster.

What Hurricane Katrina exposed was the psychological consequences of the welfare state. What we consider “normal” behavior in an emergency is behavior that is normal for people who have values and take the responsibility to pursue and protect them. People with values respond to a disaster by fighting against it and doing whatever it takes to overcome the difficulties they face. They don’t sit around and complain that the government hasn’t taken care of them. And they don’t use the chaos of a disaster as an opportunity to prey on their fellow men.

I do not entirely agree with the article’s assumptions but the general thesis is compelling.

36 comments to An unnatural disaster

  • syn

    In other words, if everyone in the US were Leftist Kos-sacks (central government uber alles) waiting around for someone to help there would be nobody Left around to help.

    Ironic, Central Government Uber Alles Kos-sacks seem to be silenced by all the religious organizations in America which are actually the one’s providing frontline care for the suffering.

    Welfare Banana Republic, no thanks…I headed in the Right direction where individuals have power over Central Government Uber Alles Kos-sacks.

    By the way, the Governor of LA should be trashed into the garbarge can of worthless welfarism for having abandoned her duties to those she was elected to serve.
    The Mayor of NO’s should be shot for abandoning his evacuation plan while sending his police officers to Las Vagas for a vacation.

  • Michael Farris

    as referenced by Majikthise,


    “the people were so poor they were afraid it would cost too much to get a ride and they had no money for a “ticket.” … He just couldn’t believe these people were afraid they’d be charged for a rescue.”

    But then, if the samizdata crowd had their way, they _would_ have had to pay.

  • pommygranate

    The appallingly inadequate response of the state (at local, state and federal levels) and major miscalculation by Bush have been extensively reported by all the major news agencies.

    What has been noticeable by its complete absence is any condemnation of the jaw-dropping behaviour of many NO citizens. This subject has been a no-go area for mainstream television and newspapers. Instead we have witnessed all manner of excuses attempting to justify the rapes, murders, looting and intimidation.

    Whilst one can only imagine the dire conditions many people are forced to endure right now, this can in no way justify the primitive behaviour of so many.

  • syn

    Appalling is the fact that LA State Governor Blanco refused to authorize Federal command.

    She failed to turn over authority to the Federal government. In America, State Governors have the duty to authorize power to the Federal government. The Federal government is not authorized to seize the State’s power without authorization from the State Governor.

    Get it. This system is the very reason why the United States of America is protected from despotism. We do not allow the Federal Government to have the power to seize control of any State in the Union without State government authority.

  • But then, if the samizdata crowd had their way, they _would_ have had to pay

    I have no problem with the idea that one of the legitimate roles of the state should be dealing with disasters. The ‘nightwatchman’ state I aspire to would be there for exactly that sort of thing in fact. Clearly you do not understand what ‘the samizdata crowd’ actually want.

  • Robert Alderson

    A few years ago I moved from Liverpool, England to Puerto Rico (a US territory). Whilst I was in Puerto Rico there was a major hurricane strike. Amongst the damage was a large fallen tree blocking the street outside our apartment building. With the help of somebody’s truck, rope, chainsaws and simple muscle power the residents moved the tree out of the road. The tree wasn’t actually blocking access to the apartment it was just blocking a public road but the local people instinctively felt it was their problem and had to be dealt with.

    Had something similar happened in Liverpool everybody would have stayed in trying to phone the council to get them to move the tree.

  • It’s not often that I get to be more libertarian than Perry, but I would like to say that if, IF, the world were a completely different, freer and happier place I could see it as reasonable that people would pay for rescue. There is rather a charming scene in Robert Heinlein’s book “Job” where the hero – who keeps slipping through to different parallel universes and has to make sense of them all – has to pay for his rescue by the US coast guard. (He pays off the debt by washing a mile high stack of dishes.)

    But that would all be very well in a richer, saner world where no one had been brought up under the appallingly destructive and poverty-causing assumptions of statism. In our world the only attainable objective is a small state that concentrates on important things like saving lives in immediate peril rather than providing real nappy outreach counsellors.

    BTW, I plain don’t believe that any significant number of people believed that they would be charged for rescue. Why should they believe that when so much else is provided “free”? Frankly I think they are just saying that because it is awkward to say that they didn’t want to leave because they were afraid, with good reason, that their homes would be looted.

  • Ted Schuerzinger

    Besides, Perry, don’t the majority of Samizdata’s commenters praise the RNLI?

  • I agree, Perry. And I also firmly believe that the average person is in a state of such dumbed-downedness (elegant, I know) because they’ve delegated so much responsibility over their life and wellbeing to the state. And then when the state fails them and they’re cast adrift in some Hobbesian nightmare, they blame people like us. Makes perfect sense.

  • Well, apparently it’ll all come out in the wash, so to speak. No less a personage than Barbara Bush (Dubya’s mother) has observed how happy and well-adjusted many of the refugees already are, how they want to stay in Houston or whatever place has embraced them, and so on. I bet they have plenty of cake, too.

    It’ll be interesting to see how many displaced New Orleans residents ultimately get their land back. The Big Easy always has been a big draw, and once the city is drained and detoxified, there’ll be some dandy sites for shiny new shopping malls and casinos. And local government will need the revenue, after all.

  • Kenneth Irvine

    The Randians have been very quiet on the Katrina disaster. Where are their references to Ragnar Danneskjold? Why are they not calling for aid helicopters to be shot down?

  • Michael Farris

    Perry, true enough. But I get tired of people making grand pronouncements about the behavior of poor people when they don’t really understand them at all.
    It would never enter the mind of almost any non-poor person that they would have to pony up the cash before stepping on a rescue helicopter but apparently that kind of consideration motivated/s people and should be considered before making assumptions about why people stayed in NO.

  • Michael Farris – I have spoken to a former resident of NO. He seems to think that a lot of the people stayed behind because they realised this was their big chance to clean up – and I don’t mean the sort of cleaning done with a broom in hand. Going by the unconscionable behaviour of some citizens post Katrina, I can’t contradict him.

  • llamas

    At best, we can only comprehend what has gone on in NO from tiny snapshots, fed to us by the mass media. As one CG helo pilot said on the news the other day, we’re viewing what happens down there as through a soda straw.

    But mrs llamas pointed out something to me last evening. We were watching a lot of footage out of the ravaged Gulf coast, where the storm surge went over 20 feet and whole cities are levelled. And she said

    ‘Look. The streets are clean. Already.’

    Sure, there’s trash. Huge, unfathomable mountains of it. But people – the same people whose entire estate consists of a T-shirt and shorts- are picking it up and putting it into piles.

    And then she contrasted with the scenes from the NO Superdome and the Convention Center, where the overall decor consists of vast quantities of trash, all brought and left there by the people who lately occupied those places.

    Which place of the two, she asked, do you suppose will recover quicker and better?



  • But I get tired of people making grand pronouncements about the behavior of poor people when they don’t really understand them at all.

    Whilst I think there is much truth to what Tracinsky wrote, the point you make is why I wrote “I do not entirely agree with the article’s assumptions” as I think he makes a few excessively sweeping generalisations.

    I suspect the reasons some of the people who ended up ‘up the creek’ as a result of this disaster made the desisions that got them there for rather more varied reasons that just the baleful effects of statism, but I also suspect the demonstrated anti-survival mindset on unedifying display does own more than a little to exactly what Tracinski suggests.

  • I think Tracinski is a bit off base. The erosion of personal morality caused by the welfare state might have played some role but I think a broader government role was responsible.

    First, it was the government funding of the extensive levee system that created a giant people trap in the first place. If New Orleans had to support its levee system from its own pocket, especially if that was done privately, it would have been a much smaller city focused on supporting the port facilities. Instead, it grew into a tourist destination with a large underclass. A freemarket NO would have been smaller and easier to evacuate.

    (We see the same thing with Federal insurance for costal properties. People build in areas on the coast where private insurers would never cover them. So when a storm hits it does more damage than it would in a strictly freemarket system.)

    Second, the presence of a benevolent state lulls people into a false sense of security. People believe that the government not only will but can take care of them in any emergency so they stop taking care of themselves. They become passive in the face of danger.

    These are things that build up over the course of many years and are not the result of any one particular policy. Rather they arise out a general ideology that the state is font of all good.

    Its pretty easy to hypothesis that had NO had a night-watchman government this disaster would not have occurred.

  • Its pretty easy to hypothesis that had NO had a night-watchman government this disaster would not have occurred.

    Not sure I entirely follow you, Shannon. Whilst I agree that N.O. would look very different if not for the distorting hand of the state, that was not really the point Tracinsky was making if I read him correctly. Actually I think you and I and probably Tracinsky broadly agree but if N.O. had a ‘night-watchman’ state then it was clearly asleep on the night in question.

    Seems to me that N.O. got the worst of all possible worlds: a large and ineffective state presiding over a society that it had in effect trained to be psychologically unprepared for a sudden inrush of unsubsidised and unregulated reality.

  • visitor

    You people should be locked up. You all need treatment.

    In fact this site should be censored. You talk about incitement to hatred… well this site is a prime example, as bad as Stormfront or the BNP. You disguise your sociopathy behind a veneer of ‘education’, references to books nobody has read of. Most people would give you the benefit of the doubt.

    I won’t because I can see through your arguments.

    Hatred is your only motivation. You detest everything good and never have any good words to say about anybody unless it is a fellow sociopath.

    If there is justice in this world one day you’ll come face to face with one of the many blacks that you are disparaging. I hope that it’s in a dark alley and you’re on your own.

  • 50 Cents

    Visitor – thanks for the hysteria.

  • pommygranate

    Visitor – can you please refrain from making racist remarks. It is deeply offensive.

  • Robert Alderson


    Prejudice against a group is indeed terrible. Any time somebody talks about “you people” I feel uneasy.

    There might be some people who are motivated by racism to favour a small state. Equally there are some for whom racism is a motivation for strenghtening the state.

    I’m in favour of a small state. When the state shrinks individuals, of all colours, get stronger and group prejudices shrink too.

    Also, to add what you might describe as “balance” I will say that whilst some people might have stayed in New Orleans with the deliberate intention of looting there may be just as many who stayed there to live out a survivalist / vigilantee fantasy. You will probably mentally assign colours to those two groups; I try to judge individuals by their actions and ignore colour, race, religion etc..

  • asus phreak

    If there is justice in this world one day you’ll come face to face with one of the many blacks that you are disparaging. I hope that it’s in a dark alley and you’re on your own.

    Dude! Bring ’em on! Why’d you think we’re all in favor of owning guns?

    BTW, just to bust your sterotype (that don’t look right, how the hell do you spell that word?), my mom is from Dominica and I am blacker than your darkest alley 😛

  • susan

    From Will Whittle’s latest essay at ejectejecteject.com titled “Tribe” I gather Visitor is a member of the Pink tribe.

    If ya’ll across the pond want to get a ‘boots on the ground’ picture of silent America, look no further.

    My tribe of Americans from all stripes are the ones who are really taking care of all Americans, from every stripe, hit by this disaster and are suffering.

    Not government. Certainly not Stalinists.

    Or from the Pink tribe (with all of Sean Penn’s wealth one would think he could have afforded to hire a couple of huge boats load them with food, water, medical suppies to boat himself over to NO’s and save the people America and evilBushHitler have neglected instead of a row boat, loaded, with cameras which he failed to plug and sank. The guy uses a red cup to bail out water? Some kinda hero)

  • MichaelCd

    From interviews with tourists who were in the Superdome – a large proportion of the dregs left behind were drug addicts. Such people act like children most of the time, without dealers, healthworkers to give them methadone, people to rob e.t.c. these people become little less than animals.

    Drugs create adult-children such people fill every city around the western world making such cities without government will descend into anarchy. Of course a lot of people on this site advocate making drugs such as Heroin legal yet will not admit that this will lead to more and more of such people.

  • Making a similar point to pommygranate’s, why does “visitor” assume that the inevitable end result of me meeting a black person in a dark alley when alone is for the black person to commit an act of politically motivated violence?

  • Midwesterner


    You make the case, consciously or subconsciously, that the people in New Orleans are victims because of there very blackness. Your racist liberal bigotry is purely your own.

    At no time have any of the regular posters on here suggested that skin color was the cause of the problems in that city. Without exception, the unanimous opinions that I have seen here attack the system of government that caused this.

    Your presumptions of black inferiority are so transparent. There is in all left/liberals a belief that “blacks need special help”. I don’t buy it. Get the @#$% government out of the way and see what free people can do.

    YOU are the one who needs to have your racist presumptions recognized. The Samizdata community believes in the superiority of the individual, not the poorly disguised white superiority you preach and practice. Take your “superior whites need to help the poor blacks” belief system back to the left liberal pit it thrives in.

  • Julian Morrison

    Hmm. Wild angry ranting, accusations of race-baiting, not a shred of any reasoned argument, and threats of karmic vengeance in which the mugger is the supposed good guy… Mayor Nagin, is that you?

  • Julian: LOL!

    Michael Cd:

    Of course a lot of people on this site advocate making drugs such as Heroin legal yet will not admit that this will lead to more and more of such people

    Not sure I follow your reasoning on that bit. Heroin etc. is already available with ease to anyone who wants it, much as alcohol was freely available to anyone who wanted it during Prohibition in the USA. Drugs are in fact even more available as it is easy to put drugs in your pocket whereas a bottle is a rather bulky thing to move and sell… and like Prohibition in the USA, the only people who benefit from that are the criminals who make super-profits due to the lack of legal competetion and the ‘barriers to market entry’ the law creates.

    So how would legalising drugs make things worse for anyone other than the criminals who supply them at the moment? Surely better to make it legal and introduce quality control and legal product responsibility to the equation.

    I do not want to live in a drugged up environment any more than you do, which is why I do indeed support drug legalisation. It may be counter-intuitive but it does make sense.

    Visitor: Oh dear, did your meds get washed away by the flood?

  • Perry de Havilland,

    I agree that NO got the worst of both worlds i.e. a big invasive and ultimate ineffective government. It got all the cost and none of the benefits of big government.

    I think that if hypothetically NO did in fact have a nightwatchman state, then it would have had a smaller, more capable population better able to react to the inevitable strike of a major hurricane. The city itself and the immediate environment would have been physically different and better able to withstand the force of the hurricane. The minimal government, having fewer task would also be able to better plan and deal with the event.

    I guess I was speaking more to those who were saying, “Ha this proves you need a big state,” in the thread than I was to you specifically.

  • JuliaM

    “if hypothetically NO did in fact have a nightwatchman state, then it would have had a smaller, more capable population better able to react to the inevitable strike of a major hurricane”

    that seems to have happened outside NO, in the provinces & areas along the coast, which got more of the full hurricane force yet seem to have had less of the problems, certainly less of the law enforcement problems.

    Perhaps they have smaller local govt, or just BETTER local government (i.e, ones that can plan & follow through) …

    And before Visitor or his ilk jumps in, I have no idea of the racial mix of these areas, but would be VERY surprised if it was materially different from NO. Fewer of the dependancy culture crowd (of ALL colours & creeds) certainly…

  • Robert Alderson

    I like the fact that the government in the US regards me as responsible enough to own a gun. I hate the fact that the government won’t allow me to own marijuana, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, LSD or ecstacy. This is hypocrisy writ large.

    Incidentally, the Netherlands, with its tolerant attitude to drugs has a lower rate of drug usage than the USA.

  • llamas

    Mention of the Netherlands gives us an example we may use to look forward.

    In 1953, the Netherlands experienced a natural disaster eerily akin to Katrina. A combination of a North Sea gale and spring high tides overwashed the North Sea dykes, and a third of the country was underwater. Thousands died, thousands were made homeless, the suffering and deprivation was incalculable.

    The result was a national effort of will to make sure that it would not – could not – happen again. Regional and local issues were simply put aside, and all matters of drainage and flood prevention placed in the hands of one state agency – Rijkswaterstaat – which was essentially given a blank cheque.

    And it took them 45 years to do it – the last of the flood prevention systems was completed along about 1998, and now it will indeed never happen again.

    Can that same sort of effort of national will be put together in the US?

    I doubt it. A resident of Colorado is going to be reluctant to vote for, or pay for, flood-control measures 1500 miles away, in a place which has flooded many times before.

    Yet, that sort of effort of national will seems to be the only way to overcome these problems. No one state – and certainly not LA or MS – can muster up the resources that it takes, never mind muster the political impetus required to impose the necessary measures even within their own boundaries. Levees spoil the view, pumphouses spoil the fishing, and the list of objections goes on for ever and ever, amen.

    I suspect that NOLA will be re-built, and re-flooded, within my lifetime, to an extent no less than it has been this time. The US federal and political system does not seem to allow for the kind of centralized effort that is required to prevent it.



  • No one state – and certainly not LA or MS – can muster up the resources that it takes,

    Sure they can. They would rather spend the money on other stuff. The annual budgets of these states is in the billions. If they cut back on social welfare programs, they could easily afford their own flood control and disaster response.

    Its not whether they can afford it. Its whether they have other priorities. And they do.

  • llamas

    R C Dean – I do NOT agree, for two reasons.

    Firstly – the scale of the works required. It’s not just a matter of putting up high sea-walls or levees. Especially not in a place where high rainfall is the norm, especially not when that rainfall tends to come in concentrated events. You must put together a complete, engineered system for all of the water, no matter where it is – keeping it out, getting it out, keeping it in, letting it in. Once again, the scale of the works required is staggering. Have you ever seen a picture of the Oosterscheldewerken, and what was required to put it there? Moving mountains is not too large a term.

    Secondly – as the Dutch found out the hard way – it boots you nothing to build seawalls, as high as you like, unless all do the same. LA could build the levees a hundred feet high if it liked, but would flood just the same unless MS and AL and MO and AR built just as high. As the ’93 floods along the Mississippi/Missouri showed, it’s usually not the direct floodwaters that get you – it’s the backwater, and often your levees become your enemy and not your friend – because they keep water in instead of letting it out. Note that the ACE is today busy in NOLA punching holes in levees, to let the backwater out.

    I think you signally underestimate the scale of the task, both in terms of treasure and politics.



  • Llamas,

    If the economic activity of NOLA doesn’t provide enough revenue to support its own levees then perhaps the city is to expensive to maintain. After all, the Dutch pay for their own dikes without the help of the rest of Europe.

    Externalizing the cost of the levee system hides the true cost of living behind the levee which only encourages more people to do so. More people require more levees and you’re trapped in a feedback loop.

    NO should be rebuilt as a smaller, more economically intensive city that can support its own infrastructure. Any other solution merely lays the groundwork for another disaster down the road.

  • llamas

    Shannon Love – I agree. The Dutch have no choice – the residents of NOLA do.

    The city itself is of marginal economic importance – what matters are the port facilities and the petroleum insfrastructure. Guess what – you don’t need a city to run a port, or an oil import/export facility. The oil industry has a long history of building a complete oil extraction/shipping capability in places which have nothing but sand, or penguins.

    Levee the oil facilities and the refineries 50 feet high. Noone cares about the view of the wetlands from the flaring towers. And the oil facilities, being relatively compact and contiguous, can be effectively leveed. Same with the docks and ports.