Humankind has overcome many challenges. From running four minute miles to sending men to the moon, obstacles and difficulties have been surmounted with apparent ease. Yet, for all the technological capabilities, nature remains unsubdued. 2005 was certainly the year of natural disaster: tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes filled the headlines. The devastation that Hurricane Katrina created, especially in New Orleans, prompts questions about natural disaster policy: can catastrophes indeed be prepared for? If possible, what should be done to prepare?
Although many in the media blame government officials and agencies for the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the fault lies not with any entity but rather with the ideology of the system. The current system, which allowed for such damage, is based upon the assumption a government is responsible for disaster preparation and response. This ideology presents several problems which make preparation and response more difficult. The ideological, but practical, solution is to turn towards innovations of public citizenry.
Humankind may never be able to prepare fully for natural disasters. The power of the natural environment is far more than can be harnessed or understood by societies of limited resources. Although the forces of nature are so powerful that they are insurmountable, their effects can be mitigated through technological innovation. In Japan, earthquakes are a chronic problem. Architecture has adapted to this: Japanese buildings are often built upon foundations which allow for movement to minimize damage. Hurricanes are a frequent disturbance in Florida. Construction firms take precautions when building homes: from special hurricane clips to substituting screws for nails. These precautions reduce damages during natural disasters. The people of Japan and Florida have learned that although natural disasters will occur the effects can be reduced.
The lessons learned in Japan and Florida teach another important lesson: disaster preparation begins with private citizens years before the event occurs. Private citizens must be concerned with the safety of their own lives and property. When private individuals bear the loss of disasters they are more likely to take risk mitigating actions because it is their property which will suffer. These behaviors include careful location selection, quality building material choices, and early warning detection systems. Private insurance contracts encourage risk mitigating behaviors as premiums are often directly linked to the chance of damage. Thus, consumers are rewarded for owning safer and more secure buildings, and are punished for owning more precarious structures.
If federal and state governments are responsible for disaster preparation and response then they are in many ways insurance companies. Nevertheless, the taxes governments charge as premiums for this implicit disaster protection do not vary based upon risk. Furthermore, instead of promoting risk management, governmental disaster protection provides the counterproductive incentive to ignore risk analysis. If an entrepreneur is considering constructing a building he or she is likely to spend time and effort to build a sound structure. Yet, if insurance is implicitly provided by the government, the incentive to expend time and capital is lost. This facilitates the inefficient allocation of resources in areas unsuitable for development. This is why thought some regions are disaster prone, populations refuse to move away because it costs them nothing. The system of government responsibility in many ways subsidizes bad preparation, which leads potentially to greater loss of life and property.
Much has been made of the failure of the government owned and run levee system. The failure of the government run system shows the fundamental flaw of the assumption of governmental responsibility. The government does not have the same personal stake in the outcome of natural disasters as does a private citizen. In a natural disaster a government may lose popularity and tax revenue, yet the private citizen stands to lose not only house and property, but also life and limb. The government ought not to be criticized for failure of the system: it operated at the level of government liability. Yet, the levee system could be operated effectively by private citizens who invest time, thought and innovation. Indeed, their personal property and lives depend upon its functionality.
Every day millions of Americans initiate millions of intricate transactions in a complex yet efficient economy. There is no central coordinator, indeed the American market place is a chaotic anarchy; yet this anarchy is seemingly beneficial to all concerned. Nonetheless, during and immediately following a disaster, when true chaos exists, the central coordinator of government is called upon to act, though governments are institutions of sophisticated order and information, not unplanned anarchy. Governments are ill-suited to conducting disaster relief operations because the intrinsic nature of disasters is disorder. The main failure of the governments during the Hurricane Katrina aftermath was the attempt to impose order upon chaos. It was this attempt which lead volunteer organizations to be turned away while thousands were stranded and bottled water to be rejected while many were thirsty. Private organizations and companies which are used to coordinating in the chaos of markets are thus better at coordinating relief efforts.
This is not to say the government is of no use in natural disasters. Due to the resources and solidarity of government, it serves as an excellent conduit for information. In times of pure pandemonium information is vitally important. If citizens have information concerning the situation they can make informed decisions to guard their lives and property. If private organizations have information regarding the extent and location of damage or the conditions of the environment, then the relief effort would be expedited in a more efficient and effective manner, which would minimize loss of life and property.
No one is to blame for the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, rather it is the ideology which ought to be criticized. There is a workable solution: a union of the virtues of government and private citizenry, the information of order and the flexibility of the market system. If 2006 is to be a year without preventable disaster, the people of America should be given information to enable them to take responsibility for their own lives and property.
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