I often defer to the sage advice, "All things in moderation." It's advice that at least some in the bureaucracy of government disaster assistance are trying to follow.
Key words: Some. Trying.
A colleague of mine has been working side-by-side for the past few months with local and federal government officials in St. Bernard Parish. Affectionately known as "Da Parish" around here, St. Bernard is a string of communities lined up alongside the Mississippi River downstream from New Orleans.
To give you a picture of what Hurricane Katrina did to St. Bernard, all you need to know is this: Da Parish is south of the Ninth Ward, miles closer to the open water of Lake Borgne and Katrina's massive storm surge. A lot of the water that flooded the Ninth Ward went through St. Bernard to get there.
I have seen a video, taken by a hard-headed fellow who decided to stay and document Katrina's arrival, which includes rather frightening footage of cars being carried down suburban streets by a brisk and muddy current.
Few homes were spared the flood. Many two-story homes got a foot or more water on the upper floor.
But folks who live in Da Parish are not allergic to hard work or to adversity. St. Bernard is where Andrew Jackson and Jean Lafitte joined to repel the British in 1815. That fighting spirit infects everyone down there to this day. And to their credit, the local politicians have put their hearts into helping rescue and revive their communities.
Enter the bureaucracy.
As reported in the online National Journal, efforts to simply demolish and remove flood-decimated homes have been bogged down in rules, regulations and paperwork. For instance, no house can be demolished until a FEMA historian or archeologist inspects the property and gives the green light--even recently built homes. As Jonathan Rauch writes, "...even debris -- including, for example, 1,600 tree stumps -- had to be reviewed for archaeological value before FEMA would pay for removal."
How can a community rebuild if they can't even get the debris removed? How can a community take advantage of federal aid for debris removal and rebuilding, aid which is timed to expire soon, if the paperwork takes up the majority of the time allotted?
Do the words "emergency" and "extraordinary" mean nothing at all to these regulators?
The current situation would be akin to a medic on the battlefield who arrives at the side of a wounded soldier, only to refuse treatment because of unsanitary conditions. It's an emergency, guys! The Army teaches its soldiers to adapt, improvise and overcome. We could use some of that kind of thinking right now.
A similar mindset appears to be bogging down direct federal aid to storm victims. Yes, we're all concerned about waste, fraud and abuse. Yes, we should take steps to minimize theft of aid money. But we must balance those safeguards against the urgency of the situation and the desperate need.
As we all know, it's difficult to arrest, try, and convict someone of a crime. The more serious the crime, the more onerous the process. Frankly, the rules are stacked in favor of the alleged criminal, and we know that a lot of criminals get off with no punishment.
But we accept this because the thought of sending an innocent person to jail, or worse, to death row, is distressful an order of magnitude even more horrible. Succinctly, we tolerate and accept lesser injustice to preserve a greater level of justice for all.
This same reasoning must be brought to bear for hurricane victims. There is no time to process wads of paperwork and run background checks on every applicant.
There also can be no reasonable expectation that victims can navigate the confusing and time-consuming rules, deadlines, forms, submittals, phone calls and office hours--all this while at the same time maintaining a demanding life of work, school, family, housework, and on and on. The lucky ones have spare enough time to grieve.
Look, I'm a college graduate and I think I'm pretty good at reading and following directions, but I still haven't completed my SBA Loan paperwork, and I'll be damned if I can figure how much assistance, if any we'll be getting from the Louisiana Road Home program.
Why can't we just look at the map, consult the tax rolls, and mail a check to everyone? Would that be more equitable, or would that be too generic? Probably the latter, but we need to judge not only fairness but timeliness. It would be much, much faster, and in the current emergency I say it would be better than the current Louisiana Road Home program.
I know this a lot to chew on, and I know this post is a bit of a curve ball in contrast to most of what I post. But I've had these things on my mind, and I think you should have these things on your mind, too.
Bottom line: we're rebuilding this city RIGHT NOW. I'm lucky enough that I think I can pull it off with just some minor assistance. I did my stint in the Army and I learned to adapt, improvise and overcome. Like my friends in Da Parish, I suppose I'm too stubborn/proud/determined to ever give up.
But a lot of folks are not so fortunate. A lot of my neighbors can do nothing until the bureaucracy decides how much, if any, aid they'll be getting.
In the meantime, every day of waiting makes it more difficult for everybody.