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Pesky facts

Popular Mechanics takes look at the myths that sprung up after Hurrican Katrina hit New Orleans. Some of their findings will be of no surprise to samizdatistas, I’m sure, including:

Folks in Tornado Alley and along the San Andreas fault don’t get federally backed insurance, so why should taxpayers subsidize coastal homes, many of them vacation properties? Before we start rebuilding “bigger and better,” Congress should reform the flood insurance program. A good start: Structure premiums so the program is actuarially sound and clamps down on repetitive claims.

Three major policy changes could help make our energy system more resilient in the face of disasters. 1) Loosen restrictions on refinery construction to encourage new refineries in more diverse locations. 2) Expand port facilities for Liquefied Natural Gas to help supplement domestic supply. 3) Relax the current ban on offshore natural gas drilling along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

Others point to a civil society that is capable of functioning with relatively low levels of government supervision:

In reality, although looting and other property crimes were widespread after the flooding on Monday, Aug. 29, almost none of the stories about violent crime turned out to be true. Col. Thomas Beron, the National Guard commander of Task Force Orleans, arrived at the Superdome on Aug. 29 and took command of 400 soldiers. He told PM that when the Dome’s main power failed around 5 am, “it became a hot, humid, miserable place. There was some pushing, people were irritable. There was one attempted rape that the New Orleans police stopped.”

When Nagin issued his voluntary evacuation order, a contraflow plan that turned inbound interstate lanes into outbound lanes enabled 1.2 million people to leave New Orleans out of a metro population of 1.5 million. “The Corps estimated we would need 72 hours [to evacuate that many people],” says Brian Wolshon, an LSU civil engineer. “Instead, it took 38 hours.”

Disasters such as this pose a challenge for minarchists and anarchists, because they present situations where government can apparently make a difference for the better. The article looks at the government response, and although it has suggestions for improvement, is somewhat favorable.

Interesting stuff.

29 comments to Pesky facts

  • I’ll bite the bullet and agree with you that on strictly consequantialist grounds the State might do some good in this situation (although I only grant this for the same of argument).
    At the point I’d like for non-(minarhists or anarhists) to acknowledge the hundreds or thousands of situations in which the State actually does harm. 🙂

  • Verity

    Oh, God – this report will break the Beeb’s heart! Poor Matt Frei! Poor Gavin something who poled around in shallow water in a flat bottom boat all togged out for steaming up the Limpopo. And that other Matt who was covering the hurricane in New Orleans from his condo in Los Angeles – all droning on and on balefully about the human tragedy, George Bush, the violence, George Bush, the breakdown in order, George Bush, disaster, George Bush …

  • If one small meteorite smashes through my living room window, the government does not “bail me out” or pay for my “reconstruction.” But if a massive meteor shower smashes all the windows in an entire city, then the government (i.e., the entire nation) is for some reason expected to help the local residents to “rebuild.”

    And, unlike people in disaster-prone zones, I am not making a conscious decision to live in a “meteor zone.” So why should I be less “worthy” of taxpayer dollars than those who know full well the risks of living where they do?

  • Julian Taylor

    Because it’s a one-off catastrophe. A meteor storm would come under Force Majeure/Act of God of your insurance policy and would probably not be covered, thus you ask for the state to cover your cost of reconstruction. If you live in hurricane/tornado/earthquake alley then it is no longer a freak occurrence of nature – its a geological or meteorological certainty that at some point you will suffer damage and, of course, no insurer wants to underwrite certainty of loss.

    There are limits that a hopefully sensible government (oxymoron, I know) should work to. Reimbursing you for a smashed window may work fine within Tony Blair’s UK nanny state where heaven’s forbid you might cut yourself and cost the NHS a bundle or deprive a poor glazier of his union-entitled labour, but just about anywhere else common sense holds sway and you should be told to go and sort it out yourself.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Verity, indeed. I saw a great programme the other day about a sleazy bar in the French Quarter of NO that kept running throughout the hurricane. That is more like it!

  • Pete_London

    Disasters such as this pose a challenge for minarchists and anarchists, because they present situations where government can apparently make a difference for the better.

    Yes, government can make a difference for the better in such situations. However, to what extent is government having to make up for the fact that the very existence of big government has so infantilised vast numbers that they do not conceive of their own ability to help themselves? I’m still struck by one simple fact – there they were, up to the eaves in water down in NO and the only reaction of many was to throw their hands in the air and demand help from someone in Washington! How bad does it have to be for some people before they realise they don’t need the goverment’s permission to get their arses into gear? What do they think limbs are for? Stone Age man had a greater realisation of his potential than your average welfare recipient.

  • I think both the reportage on Katrinia and Cheney’s hunting accident reveal a disturbing degree of dependency of the media on the government.

    In the case of Katrinia, the media passed on and amplified the hysteria of local officials without apparently doing any actual investigation on their own. In Cheney’s case, the press core was outraged because they weren’t told in what they considered a timely fashion which raises the question of why they no one assigned to follow Cheney around in the first place.

    In both cases we are left with the impression that the media is actually generating information but is instead merely distributing information produced by the state.

  • Government should be about harnessing the resources of the collective to act in the greater good. Nothing more. This to my mind does not justify a 24×7 bureaucratic behemoth supported by a professional class that spends more time justifying itself than doing the things that it was installed to do. In my ideal world (fantasy island, shangri-la, call it what you will) government would be a part time activity for those who could be bothered and most people would take responsibilty for themselves meaning there was far less governing to be done.

    In the case of NO, the government showed its best and worst qualities. We should be encouraging the good stuff and discouraging the bad.

  • Whoops, the last line of my previous post should have read

    In both cases we are left with the impression that the media is not actually generating information but is instead merely distributing information produced by the state.

    Must remember to preview.

  • twistedmerkin@yahoo.com

    As a resident of New Orleans, I completely agree that the national news coverage was horrible. But there are many errors in the Popular Mechanics article. For one, they say that the levees failed because they were overtopped and this caused the sides to erode away. THIS IS NOT TRUE! And this brings up the biggest misconception about Katrina – it was not a natural disaster, it was a civil engineering disaster. It is true that Mississippi and cities surrounding New Orleans were devastated by the hurricane itself, but the city of New Orleans was relatively unscathed by the storm- until the levees failed. If this seems like a minor point to you consider this- the levees could have failed during a strong rain storm, when the entire population was in the city instead of during a hurricane when most of the city was evacuated. See:


  • twistedmerkin

    I agree with Pete_London about people not helping themselves. Some evacuees are complaining about the city celebrating Mardi Gras, because they still have not come back. Why is the city spending resources on having a party when some of its citizens are still in exile, is how the ‘thinking’ goes. It’s six months after the storm. If you think it’s the city’s responsibility to bring you back home, I don’t want you back.

  • Verity

    I think having Mardi Gras is a great demonstration of the ‘can-do’ spirit. And these guys do all this independently. Not with government funds.

    During the run-up to Katrina, all the people in NO with any get up and go had got up and gone. It was only a few thousands of people who were waiting for the government to send helicopters to get them out who hung about.

    Twistedmerkin – Yes, it was an engineering disaster that I believe can be strictly laid at the door of corruption. “Corruption and Louisiana?” I hear you cry, outraged. Anyway, let me put it this way: Governor Blanco has a Spanish last name, but she is from a very old NO family. ‘Nuff said.

  • Verity

    PS – the very fine General Honoré, who came in to kick ass and get NO on its feet again, is also from a very old Louisian family.

  • twistedmerkin

    Verily, Verity. Flood insurance is something else that was not accurately portrayed in the article. Damage caused by hurricanes (roof damage, broken windows, etc) is covered under regular home owner’s insurance. Damage caused by flooding is not. Thus flood insurance. Because of the zip code I live in, I have been forced to buy flood insurance in addition to my home owner’s insurance. Since my home didn’t flood, I received no check from flood insurance. I did have hurricane damage, so I received a check from my regular home owner insurance company. A friend of mine’s home was completely destroyed by flooding. He received a check from flood insurance. His flood insurance premium has now increased 300%.

  • Verity

    Why was your comment addressed to me, Twistedmerkin? I hadn’t said anything at all about insurance. I said the levies broke because they were probably substandard due to corruption. Hardly a new concept.

    By the way, I don’t remember, but is it true that you have drive-thru daquiri bars in NO? I think that is just so neat, if true.

  • cubanbob

    Karina blew over my house with the same strength as it did New Orleans and I suffered no damage to my home. That wasn’t luck but rather having a home built to the toughest building code in the US, the South Florida building code. Part of the code also mandates the home be built to an elevation sufficient to avoid most likely flooding. It isn’t as if New Orleans and the Gulf Coast have never suffered a hurricane before. Unless they are willing to enact proper building codes for the reconstruction of these areas, all the reconstruction funding is a huge and fraudulent waste of money. Congress ought to demand that the affected areas enact the South Florida building code to qualify for federal reconstruction aid.

  • Sandy P

    It’s like those Kalifornians who build their homes on the sides of the mountain and then come the mud slides.

    How many times am I expected to pick up the cost cos they want to live on the side of a mountain?

    More risk to the individual, less to the state.

  • twistedmerkin

    Verity, my insurance comment wasn’t meant to be addressed to you, I was just agreeing with your comment about corruption and then proceeded to complain about what I thought was a misrepresentation in the Popular Mechanics article about flood insurance- they seem to imply that there is no financial penalty for living in a flood prone zone and that is incorrect. I have been paying for flood insurance ever since I bought my house and yet didn’t need it for Katrina. A friend of mine did receive flood insurance money, and his premium has gone up drastically. And yes, there are drive-through daiquiri shops here. There was a movement a few years ago to stop the practice in Kenner, a suburb. The solution was to put a piece of tape over the straw, so that they weren’t serving open containers. Of course, there is a tradition of doing things differently here. When the states were told that they wouldn’t get federal highway money unless they raised the drinking age to 21, Louisiana made it illegal to drink alcohol if you are under 21. It was NOT, however illegal to sell alcohol to people under 21. So if the federales busted a place, they could arrest the drinkers, but the bar owner would not be guilty of anything illegal. Local cops were sometimes employed as bouncers and I remember giving a cop my driver’s license which clearly showed I was under 21 and having him nod me in. In the locals’ eyes, the drinking age was 18.

  • toolkien

    In any situation where it is believed that the government provides a net good has failed to determine all the costs.

    Any net transfer by force simply leaves those subsidizing less able to deal with any “negatives”, big or small, that may be beset them.

  • Joshua

    Of course, there is a tradition of doing things differently here. When the states were told that they wouldn’t get federal highway money unless they raised the drinking age to 21, Louisiana made it illegal to drink alcohol if you are under 21. It was NOT, however illegal to sell alcohol to people under 21. So if the federales busted a place, they could arrest the drinkers, but the bar owner would not be guilty of anything illegal.

    RIGHT ON!!!!

  • Verity

    If I remember rightly, it’s not against the law to drink and drive in NO.

  • Disasters such as this pose a challenge for minarchists and anarchists, because they present situations where government can apparently make a difference for the better.

    Why? You mentioned two things the governments did:

    1. The mayor ordered an evacuation, and people listened.

    2. The local interstate turned all of its lanes to outbound.

    There wouldn’t be a mayor in anarchy, but people would have left anyway when they couldn’t supply their needs any more.

    There’s no reason to think that a private road wouldn’t open all its outbound lanes and reduce fares. Considering all the private charity that was donated, I think there would be charity from the roads company, as well as from other companies willing to pay the fares to let people pass.

    I think we also have to go back and examine the history of the construction of the levees and the distortion of the flood risk through government management of flood insurance.

    – Josh

  • llamas

    We’ve had a bunch of evacuated workers from NOLA at casa Llamas several times the last few months. They’re employees of one of my customers, and their operation has been temporarily relocated up here.

    Many of their stories are heartbreaking, and it’s suprising that most if not all are strong in their desire to go back to NOLA. But, to a man and woman, all of them are unanimous in their opinion that government – city, state, Federal – was absolutely useless in helping them, and often made things a lot worse. One guy told me that his life was an absolute misery of incompetence and deprivation until he found himself in the Houston Astrodome and saw a sign posted by his employer, looking for their employees. From that moment on, he said, things took a turn for the better and have just been getting better ever since.

    It’s just one experience, but may be instructive.



  • Wild Pegasus, you must have overlooked page 2 of the article:

    In fact, the response to Hurricane Katrina was by far the largest–and fastest-rescue effort in U.S. history, with nearly 100,000 emergency personnel arriving on the scene within three days of the storm’s landfall.

    Dozens of National Guard and Coast Guard helicopters flew rescue operations that first day–some just 2 hours after Katrina hit the coast. Hoistless Army helicopters improvised rescues, carefully hovering on rooftops to pick up survivors. On the ground, “guardsmen had to chop their way through, moving trees and recreating roadways,” says Jack Harrison of the National Guard. By the end of the week, 50,000 National Guard troops in the Gulf Coast region had saved 17,000 people; 4000 Coast Guard personnel saved more than 33,000.

    These units had help from local, state and national responders, including five helicopters from the Navy ship Bataan and choppers from the Air Force and police. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries dispatched 250 agents in boats. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), state police and sheriffs’ departments launched rescue flotillas. By Wednesday morning, volunteers and national teams joined the effort, including eight units from California’s Swift Water Rescue. By Sept. 8, the waterborne operation had rescued 20,000.

    While the press focused on FEMA’s shortcomings, this broad array of local, state and national responders pulled off an extraordinary success–especially given the huge area devastated by the storm.

  • You’re quite right in that I didn’t read the entire article, only the portion you excerpted.

    I think you first have to go back and examine the history of government levee construction and of government flood insurance. How did these distort the risk of living in New Orleans?

    I think you also have to realise that the government wasn’t about to let any significant private rescue mission into NO. Wal-Mart’s readiness before the storm even hit is a good indication of what private rescue initiatives would likely be.

    And then you’d still have private defence companies working for people in NO. No doubt they’d rescue their clients first, but like the road companies I mentioned above, I think they would show kindness to others as well. And if not, more than enough charity could be raised to pay them to keep rescuing.

    – Josh

  • twistedmerkin

    Josh, the flood insurance program began in 1968. The vast majority of New Orleans was already built by then. In fact the population of NO peaked in the 1960’s with a population of around 600,000. The population has decreased ever since.

  • Verity

    The population has decreased ever since.

    They drove through too many drive-thru daquiri shops and then drove into the bayous.

  • twistedmerkin

    Well, Verity, that would explain all of the cemeteries here. But I think the real cause was white flight. I think NO did not become a Chocolate City until the 1980’s.

  • Verity

    twistedmerkin – Maybe they thought as long as they’re above-ground, they could keep on drinkin’.