We’re from the Government, and We Are Here to Help

In February, I heard a wonderful presentation by Emily Chamlee-Wright on the recovery process from Hurricane Katrina. One of my favorite parts of her presentation was an account of how the federal bureaucracy hindered those whose entrepreneurship was needed for recovery. The account is included in her book The Cultural and Political Economy of Recovery, that documents her research on Katrina:

(p. 142) . . . , the bureaucratic structure governing disaster relief can stifle, or at the very least frustrate local leadership driving community redevelopment. Doris Voitier’s efforts to re-open the public school system in St. Bernard Parish illustrate this point. Voitier had initially assumed that FEMA’s newly created task force on education would lend the support and expertise she needed. But she quickly learned that FEMA’s role was not so much to lend support as it was to regulate the decisions coming out of her office.

VOITIER: [W]e had our kickoff meeting in September. We didn’t even know what a kickoff meeting was nor did we know we were in one until after it was over . . . . In their little book, which I read later, they tell them, “meet in the person’s home territory,” basically. Now . . . we were operating out of Baton Rouge, and so were all of the people who attended this meeting. We all got rental cars and drove down [to St. Bernard Parish] and met on the third floor of the building over by Chalmette Refining at 2 o’clock in the afternoon in 100 degree heat with no air conditioning or anything. [M]y assistant superintendent and I walk into this meeting and there were 27 people in this meeting are sitting around this table . . . and we were going through the introductions. And the first two people said, “We’re so and so. We are the FEMA historical restoration team” I said, okay, tell me what you do. “Well, we make sure any buildings that are 40 years old or more, they’re designated a historical building, we make sure all of the rules and regulations are followed for that or if there are any historical documents, paintings, or whatever, that they’re preserved properly, and that you do (p. 143) everything you’re supposed to do . . . .” Now here we are just trying to, you know, trying to recover, not worrying too much about that sort of stuff, but . . . thank you very much. So the next two introduced themselves and I said, “Well who are you?” “We are the FEMA environmental protection team.” I said, “Tell me what you do.” Well, same thing. “We make sure all of the environmental laws are followed, that if there are any endangered species that they’re protected,” you know, yadda, yadda, yadda. Okay. The next two, “We are the FEMA 404 mitigation team.” I’m looking at them and I’m thinking, what in the heck is 404 mitigation? Because the next two were the FEMA 406 . . . . So I’m looking at them, I’m thinking, I don’t know what 404 was and I certainly don’t know what 406 is . . . . And you know. . . [I’m thinking] can’t somebody help me get a school started and clean my schools . . . ?

Source:
Chamlee-Wright, Emily. The Cultural and Political Economy of Recovery: Social Learning in a Post-Disaster Environment, Routledge Advances in Heterodox Economics. London: Routledge, 2010.
(Note: first ellipsis added; other ellipses in original.)

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