When your TV column is titled "Give Me a Break," it's hard to know where to begin after Katrina.
First I thought I'd say, "give me a break" to the looters. Then to Louisiana's governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, since National Guard troops were available, but she wouldn't let them help. Then came the Internet scams. Some people who thought they gave for hurricane relief actually gave money to crooks in Brazil.
The government's responsibility, though, dwarfs anything done by criminals. To start, the federal government invited disaster by offering cheap insurance. That encourages people to build on the coasts. I'm embarrassed to admit I once built a house on a beach in Westhampton, N.Y., because government insurance guaranteed I couldn't lose. When a storm washed my house away, government paid me for my loss. It would have covered me again and again had I rebuilt. (I sold the land.) Government insurance is truly an insane policy.
Then came the bureaucratic obstacles. While New Orleans hospitals had no electricity, the U.S.S. Bataan sat just off the coast, equipped with six unused operating rooms and hundreds of hospital beds. Its commander said she could do nothing because she hadn't received a signed authorization. It's reasonable to worry about getting the armed forces involved in law enforcement, but where's the threat to the Constitution if, in the middle of a disaster, a Navy doctor saves your life?
In other cases, private enterprise tried to help, but government got in the way. Wal-Mart offered truckloads of water, but was turned away by federal bureaucrats.
Dr. Jeffrey Guy, a Nashville trauma surgeon, recruited 400 doctors, nurses and first responders to help the people in New Orleans. Then FEMA gave them something to do: fill out 60-page applications that demanded photographs and tax forms.
Guy received an e-mail from an emergency room doctor in Mississippi who needed bandages, splints and medicine, and coloring books for children. Guy had them -- he'd been collecting corporate donations -- but FEMA said they needed two state permits to transport these items from Tennessee to Mississippi. The supplies were only sent when two guys showed up with a church van and volunteered to take them -- as rogue responders without FEMA's permission.
The deadliest government mistake was made by Congress. The Army Corps of Engineers had said it wanted $27 million to strengthen the levees protecting New Orleans. Congress said no, though our can't-spend-your-money-fast-enough representatives did appropriate more than that for an indoor rain forest in Iowa.
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