2013 FIRST PLACE ESSAY

Weathering the Storm: The Failure of FEMA and Big Government

by Noelle Rutland, Age 17
Submitting Teacher: Sarah VanDuyne


"Last night, we showed you the full force of a superpower government going to the rescue." On September 1, 2005, MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews in a now infamous quote reported favorably on the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina. In the weeks that followed, as the "full force" of the federal government was revealed to be little more than chronic mismanagement, and thousands of Katrina victims were left stranded without food or water, the quote became an ironic testament to the failures of big government to cater to the needs of the people.

The myth of the "superpower" government as a champion for its constituents has pervaded American culture. Spurred on by an unfounded confidence in their own abilities and in the abilities of the national government as a whole, politicians provide eager voters with reassurances that more consolidation of power at the federal level will allow for increased benefits and more efficient operating. In his TV special "No They Can't", John Stossel debunks this notion. Stossel recounts the failure of overly ambitious federal programs such as HeadStart, the TSA, and NASA. He points out the tendency of such programs to become swamped in bureaucracy, and provides a revelation of one commonly overlooked truth: Where government fails, individuals succeed. There is no better example of this phenomenon than the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Category 3 hurricane proved especially devastating, with the city experiencing widespread flooding and loss of power due to breaches in the levee system. Despite a mandatory evacuation order from Mayor Ray Nagin, many residents were unable to leave or chose to remain in the city. The consequences of this proved disastrous. TIME Magazine reports that 657,000 people lived in the flooded areas of New Orleans, with 183,000 children and 88,000 elderly people displaced due to the storm. In the midst of this catastrophe, there was a glimmer of hope on the horizon: FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was tasked with providing disaster relief. Unfortunately, this intervention by the federal government only served to embody another example of big government's inability to provide for the people. Americans looked on in horror at the unfolding governmental debacle and the devastating consequences it wrought.

Foremost among the criticisms of FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina was its entanglement in bureaucratic and legalistic dealings, leading to a slow response time and unwillingness to accept help from more qualified individuals. According to an article by New York Times journalist Scott Shane, FEMA repeatedly turned away offers of help from outside sources in the misguided belief that a unified federal government response to the disaster was the best course of action. Offers of help rejected by FEMA officials included three Wal-Mart trailer trucks loaded with water, 1000 gallons of diesel fuel provided by the Coast Guard, and offers of aid from the mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley, and the governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson. A FEMA press release posted on their own website urged fire and emergency response services not to participate in relief efforts unless specifically authorized by the federal government. While disaster victims starved in the streets and remained unable to obtain the most basic necessities for life, FEMA scrambled to organize a federal initiative and clung to its destructive pride in the capabilities of the federal government.

In the meantime, the real heroes of the Hurricane Katrina disaster emerged: everyday people committed to succeeding where the federal government had failed. Without governmental assistance or authorization, Louisiana Senator Nick Gautreaux assembled a flotilla of Louisiana volunteer citizens as first responders, who later became known as the "Cajun Navy". Outside of the LouisianaStateMuseum, the 24 foot Skeeter boat used by citizen Ken Ballau to rescue more than 400 people is now on display. "Katrina wasn't all failures," Mr. Ballau said of the disaster. "It wasn't a city full of helpless people. We had a lot of people here who were willing to risk everything to do the right thing."

It is imperative that the citizens of the United States recognize the failure of the federal government in the area of disaster response. President Obama's choice to utilize FEMA in the wake of the Hurricane Sandy crisis despite their record of mismanagement and exacerbation of the problem begs a pressing question: When will America learn that federal intervention is not always the solution to the problem? Despite promises from the Obama administration and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, response to Hurricane Sandy has been just as underwhelming as Hurricane Katrina. Journalist Michael Patrick Leahy reports that FEMA was once again slow in distributing supplies, with the first supplies to reach the disaster area being half a million units of bottled water which came not from FEMA but from the private corporation Nestle. One FEMA worker remarked as reported by Fox News, "I worked in Katrina and Katrina was run better than Sandy." This example debunks the frequent claim of the liberal media that the blame for Hurricane Katrina rests on President Bush. Proponents of this claim fail to recognize that the United States' disaster relief problems stem from a failure of not only the president, but involvement of the federal government as a whole. In disaster response, as in the other areas highlighted by John Stossel in his TV special, the federal government would be better off taking a step back from the situation and allowing individuals the freedom to do what they do best.

The success of individuals in responding to the Katrina crisis reinforces the revelation Stossel provides: the popular slogan "Yes We Can" is misleading. Government can't do everything. But where government fails, crippled by inefficiency bred of overregulation and bureaucracy, free individuals succeed.