Paul H. Rubin: A Tale of Two Disasters





[Mr. Rubin is a professor of economics at Emory University, and held several senior government positions in the 1980s. He has a summer residence on the Florida Panhandle, where he is fearfully awaiting the arrival of the oil.]

In many respects, the Deepwater Horizon disaster and Katrina are mirror images of each other. The harm from Katrina was on state land—mainly Louisiana, but also Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. As a result, President George W. Bush and the federal government were limited in what they could do. For example, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff wanted to take command of disaster relief on the day before landfall, but Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco refused. Federal response was hindered because the law gave first authority to state and local authorities.

State and local efforts—particularly in New Orleans, and Louisiana more broadly—interfered with what actions the federal government could actually take. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was late in ordering an evacuation and did not allow the use of school buses for evacuation, which could have saved hundreds of lives. President Bush had no power to change that decision.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is on federal offshore territory. The federal government has primary responsibility for handling the situation, while state and local governments remain limited in what they can do. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency has repeatedly changed its mind regarding the chemical dispersants that Louisiana is allowed to use. In the Florida Panhandle, Okaloosa County officials voted to disregard any restrictions from higher branches of government and allow its own emergency management team to do what it views as best, such as creating an underwater "air curtain" of bubbles to push oil to the surface, and using barges to block the oil once it rises. They believe that the federal government is undermining their efforts....

Mr. Bush responded quickly to Katrina but was handicapped by regulations giving power to the states. Nonetheless, the federal response was well coordinated and helpful overall. But Mr. Bush was rapidly and widely blamed for the result of Katrina and for failures that actually occurred at other levels of government.

Now Mr. Obama has much more power than did Mr. Bush, but the federal response is ineffective and often stands in the way of those in the best position to know what to do. It is only in the last week or two that the mainstream press has voiced any criticism of Mr. Obama....

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