Government Lags Private Sector in Katrina Rebuilding Efforts

As we mark the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating landfall today, it is fitting that we look at the progress that has been made in rebuilding the region–and the lack of progress. As Harry Mount explains in a recent article for the UK’s Daily Telegraph, there have been stark differences in the rebuilding effort between the public and private sectors:

[W]hile private business has flourished, public works have failed miserably. Schools are only just opening. University departments have been closed for good. Courtrooms don’t have enough judges to deal with the renaissance of America’s murder capital.

Mount continues:

This mismatch between private and public has nothing to do with shortage of public money; after Katrina, President Bush promised £58 billion ($110 billion) in federal aid for the victims. New Orleans and its crooked ways are partly to blame. Only this weekend, a pair of Bobcat excavators worth £50,000 ($95,000) were stolen from the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the hardest-hit areas of the city, where they were being used to build a memorial to the victims of Katrina. But the chief culprit is a federal government clogged with bureaucracy and indecision, incapable of spending money even when it’s got tons of the stuff. The American government can just about arrange an orgy in a brothel — fraudulent applications for Katrina aid were spent on champagne and prostitutes — but it is hopeless when it comes to large-scale federal construction projects.

This paralyzing bureaucracy is not limited to Katrina recovery efforts, either. As Mount notes, the same maladies have impaired rebuilding efforts at the World Trade Center site as well.

In the five years since September 11, one building, 7 World Trade Centre, the third and least-known skyscraper to collapse that day, is the only one to have been rebuilt. At 7 WTC, the site’s leaseholder, Larry Silverstein, worked unencumbered by the attentions of government. As a result, the £350 million ($665 million), 52-storey tower went up this May without a hitch. A couple of hundred yards from 7 WTC, Ground Zero is still a great big empty concrete tub. Mr Silverstein owns the lease to the Ground Zero pit and the rights to rebuild all the space lost within it. But, while 7 World Trade Centre is outside the pit and entirely under his control, construction inside the pit is run by government, principally George Pataki, the outgoing governor of New York State.

We should take these lessons to heart when we consider options for rebuilding of the Gulf Coast, the World Trade Center site, and future disaster areas. It is not government planning, but market forces, that allow for the quickest, most appropriate, and most economical recovery of disaster areas. People and businesses will seek opportunities to invest their resources and offer their services where they are most needed–if only government will get out of the way and let them do it.