Joel Kotkin: History Tells Us that in Disasters It's Local Authorities Who Make the Difference

[Mr. Kotkin, an Irvine Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of "The City: A Global History" (Modern Library, 2005).]

... The huge discrepancy between the Texas and Louisiana responses should call into question the assumptions that have been trumpeted since Katrina. Foremost, we need to reconsider the central focus on the role of the federal government. Historically, the first responders in a crisis have been local officials, the province being more one of mayors and governors than presidents.

History shows that the key determinant of success is the competence of local government. When local officials are responsive and prepared -- as seen from the 1994 Northridge, Calif., earthquake to recent hurricanes in Florida and, now, in east Texas -- FEMA plays its role with some effectiveness. But when local officials are inept, the shortcomings of the federal bureaucracy become more obvious. So although reform of FEMA may well be appropriate, any massive post-Katrina federal bailout of New Orleans should be tempered by skepticism about the ability of state and city officials to determine priorities or to execute plans with efficiency.

Federal taxpayers should insist that funds be designated for long-term investments toward both infrastructure and preparation. Currently, there is a great danger that much of the money may be used to underwrite massive real estate speculation and a famously corrupt political culture. Others are calling for federal funds to construct an expensive experiment in urban social engineering.

Perhaps an even more difficult lesson lies in changing our approach to development along portions of the Gulf coastline. This region, with the notable exception of New Orleans, is one of the fastest growing in the U.S. Its relatively low costs and balmy climate have turned it into the "opportunity coast." Yet clearly the Gulf's history has shown that ignoring nature has its perils. Few now remember Indianola, south of Houston. Until it was wiped out by hurricanes, first in 1875 and then again in 1886, it was Texas's second-largest port. Today, most of that city lies under water.

The other, better-known case, is Galveston. Before a 1900 hurricane -- which took 6,000 lives -- it was the premier port and commercial center on the Texas coast. After the hurricane, the flow of commerce shifted inexorably to inland Houston, which was, and remains, better protected from the Gulf's annual tantrums. Such lessons should guide development along the Gulf in the coming years. For one thing, it may make sense to use marketplace mechanisms -- in the form of insurance premiums -- to let developers accurately assess the risk of new development. After all, federal assistance may be limited in the future. Some places may need to be abandoned. Whole towns already have been demolished for safety reasons in parts of the Mississippi flood plain as have homes in some of the riskier parts of east Texas. Programs to buy houses from existing residents, move towns to higher ground and create new greenbelts, will benefit the environment -- not to mention the taxpayers -- by relieving them of the burden of subsidizing repeatedly flooded areas....

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