This week marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making landfall on the Gulf Coast. As always happens when remembering such ignominious events, we look back in hindsight to attempt to learn what could have been done differently. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we conservatives will admit that we share some of the blame for the disaster—just not in the way many of us realize.
The colossal failures in leadership in the wake of Hurricane Katrina proved once again that, as historian Richard Weaver famously claimed, “ideas have consequences.” In the aftermath of a natural disaster, abstract theories about public policy and governance were tested in the laboratory of reality. Bad ideas, naturally, can have catastrophic consequences. But as we saw, even good ideas, when poorly implemented, can be calamitous.
A primary example is the principle of subsidiarity, an idea found in both Catholic and Reformed social thought, and which is often embraced by conservatives. Almost twenty years ago in an issue of Religion and Liberty, David A. Bosnich explained,
This tenet holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be. This principle is a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom.
While limited government, personal freedom, and other such goods are worthy reasons to support such an ideal, there is an even more primary justification: it saves lives. The evacuation of New Orleans provided a useful example of how this works out in a real-world context.
According to the principle of subsidiarity, governmental agencies and leaders at the city, parish, and state agencies hold primary responsibility for implementing the evacuation process. In 2005, the city of New Orleans apparently agreed, since in their “Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan” they vested the authority to authorize an evacuation with the Mayor and the implementation of such an action with the city’s Office of Emergency Preparedness.
Louisiana’s official hurricane evacuation plan even notes that the primary means of evacuation will be personal vehicles but that school and municipal buses, government-owned vehicles, and vehicles provided by volunteer agencies may be used to provide transportation for individuals who lack transportation and require assistance in evacuating.
How many people needed to be evacuated? In a paper written more than a year prior to the disaster, University of New Orleans researcher Shirley Laska estimated that the city has approximately 120,000 residents who did not have their own transportation and would need to rely on the government. While this is an extremely large number, the Regional Transportation Authority and the local school system had, at that time, roughly 560 busses they could use in an emergency. Assuming that each bus could have carried sixty-six passengers, each trip could carry 37,554 residents to safety. Only three round-trips would have been necessary to move all 120,000 citizens.
Such a task would naturally be rather time-consuming and fraught with unforeseen difficulties. But it would have almost assuredly saved many lives—if it had ever been attempted. Rather than follow their own operating procedures, though, the city allowed the busses to lie dormant and instead advised residents to seek shelter in the Superdome. Only after the storm did the people who had followed this advice discover that they were trapped in the stadium without food or emergency services.
Realizing that their plan was faulty, the city chose to shift the blame to the federal government. Terry Ebbert, the director of homeland security for New Orleans, criticized FEMA for not acting quickly enough to move the 30,000 people who were holed up in the shelter of “last resort.” New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin even had the audacity to criticize the feds for not moving quickly enough after the storm had subsided, “I need 500 buses, man…. This is a national disaster,” said Nagin. “Get every doggone Greyhound busline in the country and get their asses moving to New Orleans.” In his rant Nagin never got around to explaining why he never got the 500 buses within the city to move out of New Orleans.
All of this was noted at the time, yet people claimed it was too early to start placing blame. Now, a decade later, we can clearly see how that refusal to hold local leaders accountable for their failures compounded the problem. Mayor Nagin had proven to be remarkably incompetent and if his resignation had been called for earlier, more lives may have been spared. (He claimed, for example, that he was unable to call for an evacuation until he had consulted with the city attorney. Yet the information proving that was false was publicly available on the city’s official website.) Nagin failed as a leader and many of his own constituents suffered or died as a result.
What is most distressing about the situation, though, is not that a mayor failed to lead but that the principle of subsidiarity was already in place and yet failed to be implemented. Mayor Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco deserve the primary blame for the incompetent response in New Orleans. But the larger failure belongs to conservatives.
Principles such as subsidiarity, federalism, and limited government are often considered cornerstones of conservative political thought. But when it comes to their actual implementation we merely pay lip-service to the concept. While aspiring young politicos sing the praises of states rights, they prefer to do so in the Rayburn House Office Building or in D.C. think tanks rather than in the choirs of their state legislatures or local governments.
The very idea that our most competent conservative statesmen should be working in their actual states rather than in Washington is considered ludicrous. After all, everyone knows that state and local governments are reserved for the also-rans and has-beens rather than for the able and ambitious. Any job in FEMA, for instance, is considered superior to working in the New Orleans’s Office of Emergency Preparedness.
But mayor’s offices, city councils, and state legislatures all join what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons” that serve as our first line of defense when natural or man-made disasters strike. So why, a decade after we saw the consequences in New Orleans, are we still not working to put our best and brightest into these local roles and offices? Why do push them to take jobs as U.S. senatorial aides in on Capitol Hill rather than as state senators in their own home state’s capitals? Why do we lead them to take roles as assistants to assistant directors in the Department of Education rather than as leaders on county school boards? Why do we put our rhetoric behind the local and yet but our faith in the federal?
If we expect to be taken seriously, conservatives must start supporting the principles we claim we believe. One way that we could begin is by “subsidizing” subsidiarity, by using our resources to promote our intellectual and political leaders at the state and local levels of governance.
Imagine if conservatives had identified a true leader—whether a Democrat or Republican—and supported them in the New Orleans mayoral race. Imagine if such a candidate had won instead of Nagin, a self-financed Republican who switched party registration to the Democratic Party days before filing for his candidacy.
Imagine if we had supported a candidate who understood the responsibility of the chief elected official in a city was to look after the safety of his fellow citizens rather than to find a federal scapegoat for their incompetence. In the aftermath we can see how subsidiarity, if it had been backed by competence, could have affected New Orleans. Yet we still do nothing.
How many disasters will it take before we recognize that implementing this bulwark of limited government and personal freedom? How many Hurricane Katrinas will it take before we start acting like we truly believe in subsidiarity?