A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.
Two years ago this Saturday I drove to Pine, Louisiana with a group of fifteen people from our Church. Located about ninety miles north of the Gulf Coast, it was just three weeks after Katrina. We also spent one day in Biloxi, Mississippi located right on the Gulf, and toured the unimaginable devastation there. I reflected on the trip and the people I came to know in an April 4 article. The title of that piece was Katrina and Miss Molly, derived from the names of two “women” that I will never forget.
I won’t repeat the things I first wrote of; those were personal reflections. This article is about pubic policy, and in particular, the nature of government relief efforts related to large-scale natural disasters.
In the two years since Katrina, the Federal Government has poured nearly thirty billion dollars into the Gulf Region, with most of that going to the environs of New Orleans. In the immediate aftermath of Katrina clear thinking took a holiday, and the Federal Government went on a check-writing binge. To his credit, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner was one of a very few who challenged this. Sadly but predictably, the subsequent stories of corruption, racketeering, waste, and exploitation are legion.
Now I have no illusions that our little Band of Brookfielders made a measurable impact on the region’s suffering. But I can tell you that the lives of about two-dozen families were tremendously impacted. And the small Church in Pine where we stayed and which had become the epicenter of that county’s relief efforts, was replenished and encouraged in its vital role of spreading food, materials, and hope into that ravaged community.
When it comes to catastrophes such as Katrina, or the recent flooding in S.W. Wisconsin, government should focus primarily on restoring utilities and logistics, with the National Guard and law enforcement focusing on the maintenance of order. But when it comes to helping people, government should get out of the way and let private groups do their work.
After talking with the people in Pine and witnessing what I did, I can tell you that the people who suffered through that horror quickly stopped looking for FEMA. Instead, they tried to hook up with a local Church or the YMCA or the Kiwanis or the Boy Scouts or the Knights of Columbus or ANY entity that was small and local.
When huge sums of cash are focused in the hands of a few, in a region that is physically obliterated and emotionally shattered, it is a recipe for corruption and a virtual guarantee that most of the money won’t get to where it is needed. Private groups didn’t ask what they could or couldn’t do and they were not burdened by truckloads of regulations. They just fanned out over the countryside spreading assistance, and they did it faster and more effectively than any government agency did.
I learned that big government agencies such as FEMA got so focused on trying to “restore the region” that it didn’t have time to help PEOPLE.
Our group settled on more modest goals.