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Thursday, September 01, 2005

How to leave town

Tyler Cowan:
"If hundreds or thousands died, why didn't more people leave town? I can think of a few hypotheses:

1. They were plain, flat out stupid.

2. They were not stupid per se, but human beings underestimate the potential for small probability, massive disruptions to their accustomed status quo.

3. They made a rational calculation, but just happened to catch the wrong number on the roulette wheel of nature.

4. Bad policy meant they didn't have many good options for leaving.

Sadly, #4 seems to have played a role:

As many as 100,000 inner-city residents didn't have the means to leave, and an untold number of tourists were stranded by the closing of the airport. The city arranged buses to take people to 10 last-resort shelters, including the Superdome."

I am wondering how so many people didn't have the means to leave. Is the government really responsible for people not being able to leave? Other than the closure of the airports, what role did government policy play in whether or not people could leave?
It seems to me that some things are just a bit hard to know from news accounts. But, there are some things I think I can know. New Orleans city government had a written plan in place. The city had done "trials" in the past, and a couple of things were apparently put into their plan that said: (1) About 3 days advance will be required for a mandatory evacuation, but the city this time around only ordered a mandatory evacuation about 24 hours prior to landfall. (2) The plan said the past "trials" suggested at least 100,000 - 200,000 people would not leave the city even under a mandatory evacuation. (3) There might be as many as 100,000 of these who would not leave because they could not drive out on their own, and the plan was to use school buses to transportion these people out of the city. In this case, the Mayor never activated this part of the plan, and the result has been visibly portrayed by 100s of buses under water. (4) The plan said the SuperDome was not to be a shelter, and only as a last resort was it to be a refuge. If it was a last resort refuge people were to be told to bring at least 2 days food and water for themselves. In this case, the Mayor did not make that "bring your own food and water" order. And, apparently, at least some of the people at the Dome were taken their be the city.

So, whether the city's plan was going to be sufficient for the storm that actually hit, I don't know. What does appear to be the case is that the city, via the Mayor, did not follow critical parts of the disaster plan that was in place.
Imagine transplanting Denver to colorado Springs in one day.

Nancy Pelosi complained of a lack of mass transit in New Orleans. Mayor Nagin complained of a lack of buss drivers.

To what extent did fear of legal reprisals inhibit hurricane preparations? Would that be an example of the hidden but real cost of government regulations?

For example, the mayor could be sued for loss of business if the ordered evacuation and the storm was not as bad as forecast. This likely delayed his evacuation order. In addition, there appears to have been no consideration of using volunteer bud driver before the storm.

In many cases shelters have been unused because they had not yet been certified by an official authority. Another hidden cost of regulation and fear of legal reprisal?

Many people were more afraid of the hooligans than of the hurricane. Some were very well prepared for the hurricane and could likely survived for a long period in their own homes.
". . . .the mayor could be sued for loss of business if the ordered evacuation and the storm was not as bad as forecast."

I don't think this is correct. State and local governments have the police power, and this means they not only have the power to impose a curfew or order an evacuation, but the responsibility to maintain order. As such, an individual will not be able to sue local government for carrying out its police power.

If local government abuses its police power, I think there are two possible remedies in our system of political economy. First, is to ask the Courts to decide that the police power has been abused or exceeded and tell state and local government to stop its abuse of power. Second, if the mayor abuses the police power, or is perhaps is simply disliked after his leadership in a disaster, the mayor can be voted out of office, and in many cases the "people" retain the power of recall.
On the question of a lawsuit - it is not the legal merit of the action, but the FEAR of legal action. See http://www.nola.com/search/index.ssf?/base/news-4/1125213007249320.xml?nola
"Nagin said late Saturday that he's having his legal staff look into whether he can order a mandatory evacuation of the city, a step he's been hesitant to do because of potential liability on the part of the city for closing hotels and other businesses."

There have already been many cases where legal decisions do not appear to based on the law as most people would read it.

I have seen other articles on how various regulations prevented proposed enhancements to flood control.
I had also heard the comment you mention, but the reason cited with respect to business, in general, cannot be correct. Government has sovereign immunity (I think that is the legal term), which means government can only be sued if it agrees to be sued.

The Major's concern should have been whether or not, in our system of political economy, he has the power to act as he might choose.

I have heard, but have not checked it out for myself, that LA's constitution specifically prohibits cities from declaring marshall law. This is most likely what the Mayor was referring to, in my opinion, and perhaps he actually didn't understand, or perhaps he thought it politically expedient to couch his concerns as he did.

Further, even if he were able to declare marshall law, it is apparently the case that no level of government can take a person, forcibly from their homes, except under a legitimate court order or arrest warrant. Such coercion is therefore allowed in our system in specific cases that have a prior review by a duly constituted legal authority, i.e. a court.

Finally, it seems to me the logic of the question you asked about the Mayor perhaps not acting for fear of lawsuits is not really on point with respect to whether government failed in response. Specifically, the Mayor could still have ordered buses to transport people who willingly wanted to leave, but it seems this order was not given. Further, it seems the case that New Orleans city government did have a disaster plan, which presumably would have been checked for legality, that said the water logged buses were to be used in the manner we are discussing. It seems that several elements of the city's published plan simply were not ordered and implemented. The police power is lodged with state and local government in our system of political economy, and I suggest that means if there is any government failure with respect to security of person and property the blame can only reside with the government officials who have that power.
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