Dwight Lee, University of Georgia professor, penned an article with the instructive title "Mitigating Disaster: Abolish FEMA and Let Gas Prices Rise." I've written several columns about the surge in gasoline prices and criticized the "price-gouging" demagoguery. Professor Lee has an insight that I overlooked. He asks whether it would have been a good idea, in the wake of supply disruptions of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, for Americans to continue using gasoline as if there hadn't been those supply disruptions. After the hurricanes, more gas was suddenly needed to bring rescue personnel, evacuate the homeless, clear rubble and a host of other things to get the reconstruction efforts underway. If gas prices had remained what they were before the hurricanes, Americans would have continued using the same amount of gas. Professor Lee says, "The higher gas prices motivated tens of millions of drivers to conserve gasoline, allowing more to be available where it was badly needed." What's more, we didn't need a government edict; we voluntarily cut back on gasoline consumption.
Professor Lee explains that the waste, delays and incompetence are an inherent part of all federal programs and we'd be better off without FEMA. He gives many reasons why private or local disaster relief will produce a better outcome. However, Lee omits a question that I always ask when people assert that this or that government program is an absolute necessity. My question is, what did we do before? In 1871, a fire virtually destroyed Chicago. In 1900, a category 4 hurricane wiped out Galveston, Texas, and killed as many as 12,000 people. In 1906, an earthquake leveled San Francisco. Loss of life was estimated at nearly 3,000 people, and the damage estimated at the time was $400 million -- about $8 billion in today's dollars. After those massive disasters, each city recovered. I'd like to have an explanation, from those who'd argue that federal disaster relief and an agency like FEMA are the only ways to recover from a disaster, how these cities recovered.