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King of Chaos: The Fiasco of Floyd

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Hurricane Floyd was quickly labeled “the King of Chaos” by southerners. Unfortunately, foolish evacuation orders and foul-ups disrupted the lives of far more people than were seriously hassled by the hurricane itself. Not surprisingly, the spin is on to portray “the largest peacetime evacuation in the history of the United States” as a triumph.

Clinton administration officials wasted no time in spinning the fiasco. Vice President Al Gore proclaimed on September 15: “All things considered, it’s gone very smoothly.” James Lee Witt, chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, praised state officials for their rapid and thorough response.

The hurricane did serious damage, especially in North Carolina and in parts of Virginia and New Jersey. More than 70 lives were lost. Most fatalities occurred when people tried to drive through flooded roads or across flooded bridges.

This was the first Weather Channel-induced mass panic in American history. Clinton preemptively declared federal emergencies in several states even before the hurricane touched the continental United States. These pre-disaster disaster declarations encouraged local and state government to pull out all the stops.

With FEMA encouragement, southern states issued mandatory evacuation orders to nearly three million residents of coastal areas. These orders produced some of the worst traffic jams in the history of the South. Florida drivers were ensconced in 30-mile-long backups. Driving across Jacksonville took one motorist 5 hours instead of the usual 30 minutes. The Los Angeles Times reported that some Floridians were caught in traffic jams with no movement for 12 hours.

But according to David Burns, a spokesman for the Florida Emergency Operations Center, “Overall, we’ve never moved so many people so far with so few problems. It was astonishing it went as well as it did, but of course, you probably didn’t feel that way if you were sitting in a car for hours.”

Some of the worst traffic jams occurred exiting Charleston, South Carolina. It took some people 16 hours to drive from Charleston to Columbia – normally less than a 2-hour drive. In 1989, when Hurricane Hugo whacked the city, Gov. Carroll Campbell had quickly ordered that all lanes of Interstate 26 be reserved for westbound traffic out of the city. But in 1999 state transportation planners decided that this exodus strategy was too disruptive and dragged their feet in repeating it – dallying 8 hours after the order came in to reverse lanes.

Being in an auto is among the most unsafe places to weather a hurricane. If Floyd had sped up and caught the jammed motorists, the result could have been the biggest hurricane disaster since Galveston in 1900. Charleston’s mayor, Joseph Riley, was outraged and denounced fellow Democrat Gov. Jim Hughes: “What you’re doing is running the risk of killing my people.” The Charleston Post and Courier editorialized: “The state was unconscionably inefficient in its evacuation effort…. Though the traffic was bound to be bad, the state’s inept strategy made it much worse than it had to be.”

Once people got 100 miles or more inland, many found no hotel vacancies and were left to wander like gypsies across the landscape. The traffic fiascos were repeated in many places when people sought to return to their homes. The return was not helped by the fact that many service stations were out of gas.

Costs of the Evacuation

The evacuation cost more than $2 billion, according to state emergency experts. Clinton and Witt painted the evacuation as a success because of the limited number of fatalities. However, assuming that the 2.5 million evacuees lost an average of two days each, the total time lost from the evacuation was equivalent to the normal life span of almost 250 people. Since 95 percent of the cost of the evacuation was borne by the evacuees, the government can proclaim it was a great success – simply because politicians and bureaucrats don’t have to pay the bill.

Clinton declared on September 19: “There may be some people who question … whether we did the right thing to recommend all the evacuations. But now that we have this technology at the National Weather Center, we have to act on it.” Will pre-landfall federal panic-mongering be mandatory for all future hurricanes? Clinton and other politicians sought to define the issue as to whether evacuations were a good idea – and shifted attention away from whether state governments and emergency planners were guilty of a stupendous misjudgment that exposed hundreds of thousands of people to greater risks than they would have faced if they had stayed home.

Handing Out the Flood Monies

Even before the storm landed, Florida’s governor, Jeb Bush, asked Clinton for 100 percent reimbursement of state and local government disaster-related costs. Bush sent Clinton an alarmist letter claiming that computer models predicted that Florida would suffer $7 billion in damage. Bush conceded, “That’s the best guess, but it is purely a guess. It’s not made up. It’s an estimate.”

This is the natural one-upmanship of disaster politics: taking a weather forecast and concocting a computer model with horrendous damage estimates – and then rattling the tin cup as fast and loud as possible. Once Clinton issued his preemptive emergency declaration, state and local officials were free to rev up spending and send the bill to Washington. Florida, which escaped almost any damage from the hurricane, was promised that the feds would cover 75 percent of overtime for police, firefighters, and other government workers and other related costs in response to the proclaimed emergency. FEMA paid for everything.

Sen. Connie Mack defended Clinton’s preemptive promise of federal aid: “If the state doesn’t get the declaration [of a federal emergency], it has no guarantee that it’s going to get assistance from the federal government, so there might be some hesitancy on the part of the state to act very early.” In other words, it is only the promise of federal aid that makes state governments not callously leave all their citizens to be slaughtered by Mother Nature.

The more FEMA gives, the more demanding state and local governments become. Florida’s insurance commissioner, Bill Nelson, is pressuring FEMA to compensate Florida residents who had extra gas and lodging costs because of the evacuation order. After FEMA did not jump at the opportunity, Nelson, who is a Democrat candidate for the U.S. Senate, announced that he is considering ordering insurance companies to compensate homeowners for the extra costs under their homeowners’ insurance – even when their homes suffered no damage.

The Tampa Tribune noted that such an order “would earn political points along the Atlantic seaboard for the move. But it would likely be unpopular in the rest of the state, where homeowners would have to foot much of the bill.” Insurance Department spokesman Don Pride observed: “If people aren’t reimbursed when they’re ordered out, it may be a disincentive for them to obey.” In other words, the threat of losing one’s life is not sufficient to leave the coast unless the government also promises to force other citizens to pay for your gas.

The hurricane presented the usual opportunities for presidential tear-jerking. After visiting North Carolina on September 20, Clinton announced: “No matter how much television [coverage] there is, it doesn’t do the flood justice. You can’t show what it feels like inside for people.” Clinton fretted that his benevolence might be impeded by people’s pride. He urged North Carolina residents to “take advantage” of federal aid: “The American people know that no individual can handle this alone.” Clinton did not specify exactly what “no individual can handle alone,” though many residents had to do little more than sweep the debris off of their walkways and wait a few days for fresh water. Clinton announced a special distribution of federal food stamps to people who would not normally qualify for such handouts.

Clinton, in a speech in Tarboro, North Carolina, recited a long list of federal benefits available to flood victims and urged the audience: “So you all need to take advantage of these things.” A White House press release listed the array of benefits: disaster-housing assistance (to cover the cost of a hotel while people are forced out because of home damage); grants to low-income and moderate-income individuals; Small Business Administration loans for business and personal property disaster; Agriculture Department emergency loans to farmers who suffered crop or chicken losses; reimbursement for paying the cost of clearing roads and carrying away downed trees, and more.

Clinton did not mention that SBA and USDA disaster loans have stratospheric default rates roughly 10 to 15 times higher than the average default rate for private loans. Federal disaster loans have lured many people to their bankruptcy, compounding Mother Nature’s harm.

As always, Clinton relished his role as savior. When he released the first $528 million in disaster aid for Floyd, he noted, “You probably can’t imagine how many times over the last 6 1/2 years an American citizen has come up to me … and thanked me for the emergency work that we do.”

Disaster policy is now driven by paranoia of being accused of insufficient empathy. The American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein told a Florida paper: “If there is any sense that political figures are insensitive to the trauma or disruption in life caused by a natural disaster, are not right on top of it, it becomes almost disqualifying.”

Floyd’s devastation in North Carolina is a reminder of how federal flood insurance spurs development along “hurricane alley.” Clinton, not satisfied that he had gotten enough air time on this disaster, raced over to FEMA headquarters to hold a televised press conference. The first question from the press corps was: “Mr. President, with federal flood insurance, is the government encouraging coastal development at a time when we may be in a new cycle of more dangerous and more frequent storms?” FEMA director James Lee Witt jumped in:

“Let me answer that. His voice is about gone. You know, without the Federal Flood Insurance Program, without 19,000 communities across America being in that program, it not only has saved probably close to $750 million a year in disaster dollars that taxpayers pay. [sic] And the Federal Flood Insurance Program is supported by flood premiums, not taxpayers’ dollars. The other thing – by being part of the Federal Flood Insurance Program – these communities that are part of it are – have to build to better building standards and better building codes. If they do not do that, then they’re taken out of the program.”

This is the same schlock that Witt has peddled ever since he arrived at FEMA. (Amusingly, Witt garnered a surge of positive publicity a year ago when he publicly whined about how the flood-insurance program was providing unjustified subsidies to hundreds of thousands of people.) The Charlotte News & Observer observed in 1997 that FEMA’s “bailout [after earlier hurricanes] has reimbursed resort towns for just about any piece of public property that blew away in the storm. … [It] has undermined years of efforts to discourage unwise development.”

Perhaps the logical conclusion is for Clinton to announce that any American who views a Weather Channel prediction of local bad weather is automatically entitled to a FEMA grant for “crisis counseling.”

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.