Accountable Strategies blog

A blog about accountability issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors

Missing the Katrina feeding frenzy

Posted by David Kassel on January 10, 2008

Many causes of governmental failure in relation to Hurricane Katrina are now well known.  They include the fragmented authority and confusion over responsibility for maintenance of the levee system, the misguided encouragement of urban sprawl in the area, and bureaucratic ineptitude, which led to the failure to provide adequate food, water, and buses for days to homeless survivors.

These causes are examined in depth in a December 2007 special supplementary issue of Public Administration Review entitled “Administrative Failure in the Wake of Katrina.”   What may be missing from the discussion in this issue, though, is an examination of how the federal government simply conceded much of its authority in responding to Katrina to the private sector and stood by as a feeding frenzy of profit-making, fraud, and mismanagement occurred.

In her book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein paints a stark picture of the response to Katrina as one in which a “hollow government” cheered on corporate profiteering.  Katrina provides an eerie parallel to the situation Klein describes in Iraq.

Klein sees Katrina as a template for a future in which government retreats further and futher, letting private corporations assume virtually all its previous roles and functions, from providing security to delivering health care, to the actual day-to-day process of governing.  The services, however, will be available only to those who can afford them, she says.

Companies, many of which had gotten lucrative reconstruction contracts in Iraq, were given huge contracts in New Orleans, including Halliburton and Blackwater, which was hired to protect FEMA employees from looters.   Fluor, Shaw, Bechtel, and CH2M Hill were given $3.4 billion in no-bid contracts to provide mobile homes for the evacuees.  Meanwhile, thousands of city workers, including teachers and planners, were fired.

In the PAR special issue, Carole L. Jurkiewicz notes that the citizens most affected by the hurricane “have received but a trickle of the flood money that has poured into the state.”  Jurkiewicz, however, blames it in part on the ethical culture of Louisiana.  She states at the outset that Louisianans are, by and large, proud of the state’s reputation for colorful political corruption.

In the wake of Katrina, Jurkiewicz does state that the citizens faced “the vacuum of professionalism and leadership in state and local administrations,” as well as “a partisan and ill-functioning federal administration.”  But she places much of the blame on cultural conflicts between the lower, middle, and upper-income citizens within the state, which she says have played a role in the administrative failures.  Lower-income  individuals falsified documents to receive cash cards from FEMA and looted retail shops followng the storm, she says.  Middle-income individuals overbilled for services or billed for services that were never rendered.  Upper-income individuals used their network of associates to “arrange no-bid, multi-million dollar contracts between their companies and the government.”

What Jurkiewicz doesn’t seem to acknowledge, though, is that these multi-million dollar contracts didn’t apparently go primarily to companies in Louisiana, they went to Halliburton, CH2M Hill, Bechtel etc.  This was bigger than Louisiana and its dysfunctional ethical culture.  It was the dysfunctional ethical culture of Washington and Wall Street that was involved here.

In another article in the special PAR issue—“Where Federalism Didn’t Fail”—Martha Derthick maintains that that governmental reaction to Katrina presents “a complicated mixture of failure and success.”

Derthick contends that careful planning allowed the evacuation of more than one million people out of the population of 1.4 million in greater New Orleans in the two days before the hurricane struck.  This was indeed a success and was a result of prior cooperation between the governments of Louisiana and Mississippi.  She also credits the National Hurricane Center in Miami, a federal agency, which had urgently warned state and local officials well in advance of the danger.  And she credits the search and rescue operations of the U.S. Coast Guard and the Lousiana National Guard and Department of Wildlife and Fisheries for saving the large number of people who had not evacuated.  FEMA teams helped, through they responded late.

In contrast, officials at the top of the federal government were slow to comprehend that a catastrophe had struck New Orleans, Derthick says.  She paints a picture of ineffective bureaucracy, resulting in unacceptable delays and screwups in providing food and transportation to victims.  But she, too, does not focus on the hollowness of that bureaucracy.

Derthick points out that three major federal reports on Katrina—from the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives failed to confront the risks of urban sprawl in exposed locations.  The Bush administration report sought typically to enhance presidential authority and control over disasters and broadened the president’s power to use the National Guard.  The Senate approach took a more temperate approach.   But the authors of these reports, as well, apparently didn’t see what Klein saw—the ceding of governmental authority to the private sector.

In “Learning from the Katrina Crisis,”  Ali Farazmand seeks to provide a “global perspective” on the crisis and to provide recommendations “to cope with hyper-uncertainties and unknowns.”  One of his recommendations is the imposition of “surprise management,” which involves “sound leadership through a central command structure” and “advanced, nonlinear, and chaos management systems that can be applied beyond tomorrow.” 

Farazmand’s recommendations sound fine (although I’m not sure what nonlinear chaos management is all about); but it would seem no central command structure would be truly effective if it’s the case, as Klein persuasively argues, that FEMA in New Orleans was “a laboratory for the Bush administration’s vision of government run by corporations.”

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2 Responses to “Missing the Katrina feeding frenzy”

  1. Ben Clark said

    I don’t see a problem with contracting being a part, even a big part of government work. The problem, as you aptly point out, is that oversight and accountability are grossly lacking. No bit contracts can be ok in certain circumstances, but the current administration has driven out most levels of confidence in the process.

    Having worked as a contractor for a number of years, I know we can provide a valuable service where our government lacks those skills, but it isn’t necessarily cheaper or even better to have use do this. I worked in non-emergency situations, so our contracts were bid out and took months/years to process and had copious oversight… but situations like Katrina, Iraq, and Afghanistan have proven themselves to be outside of the norms of hollow government operations. I don’t think that our federal government as it sits today can handle the responsibility to deal with these crises, but at the same time we cannot afford to pass all responsibility to others–particularly states and localities (and contractors) with a rich tradition of graft and corruption.

  2. Agreed. Government contracting per se is not the problem. It’s when government sheds its responsibility to select the best contractors, enact mutually advantageous agreements with them, and oversee the contracts that the problems crop up.

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