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Hurricane Katrina - 'Brownie, you're doing a helluva job'!

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Tuesday, 13 September 2005

“Most of the goods we consume are private goods”. That’s my Economics 101 textbook speaking. It’s true enough - just don’t tell the poor black residents of New Orleans. In the words of E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post:

It turns out that our individual striving goes on within a web of social protections that we take for granted until they disappear. We rely on each other more than we know. The rich, the middle class and the poor - all of us - bank on law, government, collective action and public goods more than we ever want to admit. The dreaded word "infrastructure" puts people to sleep at city council meetings and congressional hearings. But when publicly built infrastructure … breaks down, we realize that the things that seem boring and not worth thinking about are essential.

I had first hand experience of this in the Canberra bushfires of January 2003 attending my brother-in-law’s wedding reception on Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin. The sky to the north was clear all day. But on that hot, horrible, windy day the vista looking south over the lake gradually morphed into an Old Testament scene - you know the kind, when God had one of those really bad hair days.


The sky was an angry puce, though sufficient sunlight forced its way through the black smoke clouds to tinge the foreground an eerie washed out orange. Lunch was served.

But by the time it came to the sweets - well we were deserted! The staff skedaddled to rescue their homes from the blaze. Canberra lost 4 lives and over 500 homes that day, provoking the same kind of recrimination that we’re now seeing in New Orleans.

Driving home a primal scene played itself out before me as the smoke, thick enough to block the sun, turned day into night. A scene from Mad Max was unfolding within a couple of hours of the public infrastructure going down.

When they were not shut down by the fire itself, those systems which made the suburbs function were paralysed by the scale and speed with which the emergency had struck.

Police attended in force, but had no idea what to do. We had an old fire truck on mum’s farm that could have defended a house or two as did neighboring farms. But the call never came. Instead the metropolitan fire service battled with equipment, personnel and strategies made for tamer things. They didn’t know what to do either.

Power to the traffic lights failed leaving drivers to fend for themselves - which we didn’t do very well. In about 20 minutes I saw three accidents and an upturned car.


The situation in the Big Easy was massively worse and not just in terms of scale. And I’m glad we’re not all armed to the teeth - like they are in New Orleans - and Baghdad.

And I’m glad we don’t have a racially based underclass the size of America’s. I say that not just because as a relaxed and comfortable law abiding citizen I’m scared of gangs. But also because disaster planning in America seems better suited to those who have sufficient private goods not to require public protection.

In Chicago in 1995 just as in New Orleans ten years later, politicians were on vacation when disaster struck - on that occasion a heat wave. The well heeled could leave in their cars. Or just use their air conditioners. 739 of those who couldn’t died. They were the isolated, the poor, the sick, the old. And a disproportionate number were black. And so it was in New Orleans.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on September 7, 2005.

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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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