Editorial

Editorial by the Plain Talk Shortly after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, destroying and flooding nearly everything in its path, Rep. Stephanie Herseth made a stop in Vermillion as she prepared to travel north to the State Fair in Huron that weekend.

The full extent of the damage wasn't known. But the television and newspaper coverage at the time made one thing clear.

Thousands of Americans were in peril. Many were still stranded on rooftops, waiting for rescue.

And those who had been rescued were living in squalor, huddled together in the leaking, reeking Superdome.

Many had gone without food or water for days. Bearing the brunt of the suffering, it appeared were minorities � of all ages.

At the time, it seemed reasonable to expect FEMA to do exactly what it didn't � react. After all, Hurricane Katrina didn't come in the form of two small blips of jet airliners on a radar screen that crashed into the twin towers on Sept. 11.

No, we all watched the hurricane on CNN as it took its sweet time moving north through the Gulf of Mexico, growing and growing into one of the most lethal storms to hit the United States.

There no doubt will be lengthy Congressional hearings to examine what has gone wrong, to try to define why FEMA and the Bush Administration seemed to barely react after all of the storm's destruction.

Some time might be saved if those trying to determine what went wrong realize that government, in all of its various layers, is likely the biggest culprit.

Consider this. Private business and industry noticed that big blob on the radar screens, and, according to news reports, made preparations to offer aid.

Before Katrina reached New Orleans, when it was still just a tropical depression off the coast of Florida, Wal-Mart was rushing electric generators, bottled water, and other emergency supplies to its distribution centers along the Gulf coast.

Wal-Mart wasn't unique. Federal Express rushed 100 tons of supplies into the stricken area after Katrina hit. State Farm Insurance sent in a couple of thousand special agents to expedite disaster claims. Other businesses scrambled to get their goods or services into the area.

Meanwhile, laws prevent the federal government from coming in without the permission or a request from state or local authorities. Unfortunately, the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana are of a different party than President Bush, which may have something to do with their initial reluctance to have him come in and get political credit.

In the end, there was no political credit for anybody. There was just finger-pointing and the blame game.

Politics is only one of a number of reasons why governments are not the best handlers of many emergencies. Nor is the United States unique in this respect.

Sheer bureaucracy can slow down emergency help. It is not uncommon, when there are famines, for food shipments from other countries to sit spoiling on the docks, while people are dying of starvation in the interior, because the food is not being moved fast enough to reach them in time.

In both emergency times and normal times, governments have different incentives than private businesses. More fundamentally, human beings will usually do more for their own benefit than for the benefit of others. The desire to make money usually gets people in gear faster than the desire to help others.

This is not true of everybody. Virtually nothing is true of everybody. We rightly honor those who do their utmost to help others, in part because not everyone acts that way.

It would undoubtedly be a better world if we all loved our neighbors as we love ourselves and acted accordingly.

But in the real world that we actually live in, the question is what set of incentives has the better track record for getting the job done � and especially getting the job done promptly when time can be the difference between life and death.

This is not true of everybody.

Several stories appear in this week's edition of The Plain Talk, describing local efforts to help Hurricane Katrina victims. It's a story of classic South Dakota hospitality.

It's our hope that the assistance that eventually will be provided by Vermillion-area citizens can be delivered without the government getting in the way.

The country does not have one dime more resources available when those resources are channeled through government. The resources are just handled less effectively by the government.

The Vermillion Plain Talk editorials reflect the opinion of Plain Talk editor David Lias. You may contact him at david.lias@plaintalk.net

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