woody zimmermann 120Washington, DC’s madcap mayor, Marion Barry, made one of his most notable public announcements when murders in the nation’s capital had reached a macabre crescendo of two per day (over 700 for the year). Hoping to stem the carnage, Mr. Barry appealed to the shootists’ civic pride and “Christmas spirit” on local television with a memorable request:

I axe the people doing all this shootin’ to please put your guns away – at least until after the holidays…”

Out of loyalty to the streetwise politician they had endorsed, the Washington Post delicately ignored the mayor’s absurd statement. But other news organs treated it as the vintage slapstick it was. It has gone down in political lore as one of Hizzoner’s signature utterances.

Fast-forward to Hurricane Katrina, 2005. Public officials in Louisiana explained why residents fired on rescue teams (causing some rescuers to decline additional service). Said one New Orleans official:

We have a lot of drug users in the city. After several days without their drugs, they’re probably pretty upset…” (Well, I should say…)

Long before our time, wags noted that people get the governance they deserve. The preceding vignettes amply demonstrate that. It was doubly true in New Orleans, where “leaders” of a city situated below sea level (and protected only by earthen levees) evidently had no coherent emergency plan in place for the very eventuality of a destructive hurricane. Over 1800 people died and thousands of refugees were crowded into a football stadium without adequate provisions or sanitation. Scores of public-school buses, which might have been used for evacuations, sat flooded and unusable. NOPD officers fleeing in their police-cruisers were stopped as far away as Florida by state cops who assumed the cars had been stolen.

Undoubtedly fearful that their negligence would be exposed, Big Easy officials denounced the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Army, and President Bush (not necessarily in that order) for not getting aid to the flooded areas more quickly. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco wouldn’t cooperate with federal officials and then wept on TV about all the hurting people. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) said she’d like to “punch” the president. And New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin publicly cussed-out Mr. Bush for failing to land his plane there – thus denying Hizzoner a politically valuable shirtsleeves photo-op. (Cities are literally dying for leadership like that. You could ask Marion Barry, were he still around.)

Partisan Democrats all but blamed Mr. Bush for Katrina – citing global warming as the probable cause of recent hurricanes, and denouncing him for not adopting the Koyoto Treaty. (In other words, these storms might have been prevented, had Mr. Bush acted to stop global warming.) That meme is now being repeated. Mr. Trump is taking heat for refusing to join the Paris Climate Agreement. Repeating the Katrina-charge, environmentalists intimate that Hurricane Harvey’s hit on the Gulf Coast might have been averted by more decisive action on climate-change.

Past years have seen some pretty nasty storms:

  • A 1900 hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas killed over 6,000 people who had come out to gawk at the exposed seabed, just before a great storm-surge roared inland.
  • The Great New England Hurricane of September 1938 killed 682 people and destroyed 57,000 homes, including several that were swept out to sea.
  • Hurricane Hazel (1954) was the greatest natural disaster in North Carolina history.
  • In 1955 Connie flooded resort areas in eastern Pennsylvania, killing scores of people. Three 1955 Hurricanes, including Connie and Diane, hit North Carolina, causing several hundred deaths.
  • Agnes (1972) drenched the Washington, DC, region with ten straight days of heavy rain and produced the worst natural disaster in Pennsylvania history. Its 15 inches of rain over the Susquehanna River basin produced the greatest flood since 1784.
  • Four hurricanes hit Florida in 2004, leaving its people exhausted from cleanup and repair.
  • “Superstorm Sandy” (2008) did catastrophic damage to the Middle Atlantic coast.
  • Current destruction in Texas and Alabama is possibly the greatest in US history. Experts are calling Hurricane Harvey’s flooding a “thousand-year event.”

I don’t recall presidents being blamed for “causing” past storms, but that was then. Now every hurricane is a political event. Bashing presidents – especially Republicans – for failing to stop climate-change or global warming has become a familiar theme inside the Beltway. Mr. Bush was thrashed unmercifully over Katrina and Sandy, and now Mr. Trump is getting “the full monte” for Harvey.

This new tactic relates to environmentalists’ unshakeable belief that global warming – now called climate-change – is causing an increase in severe storms. Scientists have shown that this claim is unsupported by historical data, but psychologists say prying a true believer away from a fixed delusion is all but impossible.

In a related vein, it somehow became the federal government’s responsibility to furnish aid and mega-funding for hurricane-victims. Presidents have earned “stature points” by standing before microphones after a big storm – often wearing a fashionable windbreaker – to gravely pronounce a damaged region a “disaster area” and promise that federal aid will flow there to help.

In today’s complex, interconnected, and highly technical society this makes some sense, although there is no specific Constitutional authority for it. In many ways, only the federal government can marshal resources and manpower to project organized, large-scale aid to storm-damaged regions. Federal agencies help most when they can work with state and local levels to assist victims as quickly as possible. All this is in America’s finest tradition.

It is becoming more difficult, however, to justify federal subsidies for rebuilding damaged homes and businesses in high-risk areas – especially seacoast-communities – where storms are likely to hit. New Orleans is such a place. Lying below sea level, the city lacks natural drainage. Friends who once lived there say streets start to flood during ordinary rains until powerful pumps suck the water into the storm drains and out to sea. A storm of Katrina’s magnitude would have overwhelmed this system – particularly after the levees were breached.

In coastal Texas, reservoirs were evidently built near towns without much thought given to where the water might go if releasing some of it became necessary when those reservoirs became dangerously overfilled. Certainly a staggering amount of rain fell, but much of the flooding that covered entire housing tracts, as shown in TV news-reports, was caused by reservoir-drainage. Because of its location and climate, Houston is used to heavy rains. In all fairness, it’s doubtful that city planners ever anticipated a catastrophic 1,000-year flood.

Having libertarian leanings, I believe people should be free to build homes and live wherever they wish. The government requires many things of us, and bosses us around to an extent that would have shocked the Founders. So I’d rather not have bureaucrats telling us where we can or cannot live, unless there is some compelling national interest at stake.

I would draw the line at unlimited subsidization of this freedom, though. People can build houses on vulnerable seacoasts and in the flood-plains of rivers if they want to, but they shouldn’t expect public funds for rebuilding whenever a storm blows through or the river floods. Should the freedom to do something risky entail an expectation of public succor when things go wrong?

Is being the insurer of last resort really a proper role for the federal government? And if it is, where’s the limit? If I choose to drive a car made of English porcelain, should the public pay to fix it when it shatters after a routine fender-bender? The cost of doing exceptionally risky things belongs with the individuals who take those risks, not with all of us, via government.

I heard a radio interview with a lady who had lived on the Gulf Coast for three years. “I’m so sick of the storms,” she said – her tone implicitly asking why somebody doesn’t do something. My wife and I looked at each other and said, “Hello! Go live somewhere else!”

I grieve for those who were hurt or suffered damage from Harvey. They have had a tough break. As private citizens are so moved, they will send food and help to the needy. Many of us will chip in. Americans have always done this voluntarily, and it’s already happening in Texas. But doling out unlimited tax dollars to rebuild places where disaster will probably strike again is poor stewardship of the public purse. There are limits to everything.

Mr. Trump would be called the Spawn of Diablo by Big Media and pols of both parties if he failed to approve billions (possibly tens of billions) for Texas recovery. So he will probably deliver. Indeed, he might agree, personally, with doing so. OK, I get that. Nobody wants people to suffer. Mr. Trump has even donated $1 million of his own funds for disaster-aid.

But if we’re serious about stopping the unlimited growth of government, we really need to reconsider routinely spending public funds for uncritical rebuilding after natural disasters. We could begin by designating some coastal areas as “high risk,” and announcing that federal monies for storm-damage rebuilding there will be limited, according to a specific formula.

Lately I’ve even been hearing some politicians say that critical increases in funding for national defense might have to be shelved because of the unexpected cost of disaster-aid for Texas. Egad! Folks, with the Korean Fat Boy running wild, we’ve got to get a grip here. Call me hard-hearted, but enough is enough.

The welfare of the country is squarely up to us as individuals. That is where it should be, and that is where it is safest. Governments can promise something for nothing, but they cannot deliver…” (Henry Ford, 1922)