Disaster Relief: Lessons from the Hurricane Katrina

When local expertise trumps federal efforts

FILE - In this Monday, Aug. 29, 2005 file photo, Marshall Martin, on roof, hands 3-month-old Christopher Collins to New Orleans Fire and Rescue officer Jonathan Pajeaud while the child's grandmother, Sheila Martin, waits on a water craft during evacuations in the 7th Ward of New Orleans, following the passage of Hurricane Katrina through the area. (Gary Coronado/Palm Beach Post via AP)
Powered by automated translation

Many US communities have been devastated by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. With natural disasters seemingly increasing in frequency and intensity, societies everywhere need to draw definitive lessons on disaster relief from their experiences in dealing with them.

Last week's article looked at the Chicago fire of 1871; this week, we examine what lessons policymakers can learn from the response to Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in 2005.

This was the goal of a research project lead by Peter Boettke at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. Boettke and a team of scholars spent considerable amounts of time in Louisiana operating as hybrid economists-anthropologists, documenting what did and did not work, and synthesizing their findings into valuable scholarly contributions.

One of those works was a book by Virgil Storr, Stefanie Haeffele-Balch, and Laura Grube, entitled  Community revival in the wake of disaster. The 19th century English philosopher, John Stuart Mill, offers a useful prologue:

“What has so often excited wonder, the great rapidity with which countries recover from a state of devastation; the disappearance, in a short time, of all traces of the mischiefs done by earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and the ravages of war… in a few years after, everything is much as it was before.”

Mill was writing at a time when where were no government organisations charged with coordinating disaster relief, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema). His observation should cast doubt on the mainstream view that central governments are the only vehicle capable of organising effective disaster relief. Storr, Haeffele-Balch and Grube’s investigation into Katrina confirmed the pivotal role played by bottom-up recovery effects, and highlighted some of the problems with centralisation.

Before delving into the details of disaster relief, it is worth understanding the pros and cons of centralisation in general.

Broadly speaking, the key advantage of managing things centrally is economies of scale: when activity is organised at a larger scale, there can be huge efficiency gains. For example, national air defenses, water infrastructure, or anti-global warming efforts are highly inefficient and possibly even futile at the local governmental level, requiring a national scale for effectiveness.

Centralising has several downsides, however. First, central management creates information bottlenecks, whereby important, local information does not reach the central bureaucrats stuck applying a one-size-fits-all policy. Second, de-centralised management involves key stakeholders in the decision-making process, increasing the likelihood that their interests are accounted for, and diminishing the likelihood of corruption stemming from having no stake in the outcome. That is why issues such as local pollution, traffic congestion, and certain types of law enforcement are best organised at the municipal rather than national level, in spite of the foregone economies of scale.

In the context of natural disaster relief, experts and lay people fixate on the economies of scale benefits associated with centralisation, and conclude that decentralised responses are ineffective. An important theme in the Community Revival book is that while natural disasters are associated with an amplified need to exploit economies of scale, they are also characterised by an even stronger need to exploit local knowledge, and to engage local stakeholders.

A key post-disaster challenge is the “coordination problem” faced by evacuating residents: the baker wants to return, but only if there are enough customers; the teachers want to return, but only if there are enough students; the doctor wants to return, but only if there are enough patients; and so on. Monoliths such as Fema are poorly placed to solve this problem, since they have no preexisting relationships with the people involved; and they are poorly positioned to assess people’s interests, and to coordinate the decision to move back and rebuild.

Moreover, they have comparatively little background knowledge on the area, so when things change quickly—which often happens in a disaster—their information deficit puts them at a massive disadvantage compared to locals when it comes to responding. This reflects a deeper problem with bureaucrats: they are programmed to systematise, and are inherently anti-dynamic and unresponsive to rapidly evolving scenarios.

Storr and his colleagues demonstrated how federal efforts at recovery were relatively ineffective, and sometimes actively disruptive. In contrast, local commercial and social entrepreneurs were instrumental in assessing people’s interests accurately, in allocating resources to where they were most needed, and in coordinating people’s actions to maximise their effectiveness.

School principals, church leaders and local business leaders in New Orleans become entrepreneurs and led the way in organising the relief and rebuilding effort, making sure that the evacuees could quickly come back, and find something resembling a normal economy waiting for them.

In light of the research produced by the Mercatus Center and others, Fema’s performance has improved post-Katrina. However, there remains a fundamental underappreciation among policymakers and the general public of the role of local entrepreneurs. That is why during every natural disaster, we must reread Mill’s quote and remember what the world looked like when he wrote it.

Omar Al-Ubaydli is the program director for International and Geo-Political studies at Derasat, Bahrain. We welcome economics questions from our readers via email (omar@omar.ec) or tweet (@omareconomics)