Heck of a Job, Galveston

If you want something done right, do it yourself.

As we drive along roads which constrain the traffic to be slow enough to actually read signs, we've seen an occasional hamlet proclaim, "Welcome to Burgopolis, an All-America City."

It turns out that the right to identify yourself as an "All-America City" is administered by the great and the good at the National Civic League who award the honor to ten cities each year.  Since the program's inception in 1949, more than 4,000 communities have competed and more than 500 have been named All-America Cities.

The National Civic League was founded to increase the transparency and honesty of city government and to share knowledge between cities.  The awards web site says:

To win, communities have to demonstrate their ability to address serious challenges with innovative, grassroots strategies that promote civic engagement and cooperation between the public, private and nonprofit sectors.

As we consider Hurricane Ike, it appears that the town of Galveston, TX, not only exemplifies the spirit of the All-America award, they've learned the practical value of local people working together to solve local problems.  On September 10, Breitbart reported how the citizens of Galveston were getting ready for the hurricane:

Residents here on Tuesday warily followed the progress of Hurricane Ike -- currently tearing through the Caribbean on a path to the Texas coastline -- mindful of the anniversary this month of a storm that devastated the island city in 1900.

Though it is unclear where Ike will make landfall along the Texas Gulf Coast, Galveston's history of barely surviving the "Great Storm" of 1900 makes residents inclined to prepare for the worst.

The 1900 hurricane produced a storm surge that submerged Galveston and killed 6,000 people.

Back when the 1900 hurricane hit, there was no FEMA, there was no federal assistance, but the city recovered even though it was flooded completely.  They built a sea wall 16 feet high, filled the space behind the wall, and rebuilt the city above sea level.

Imagine that!  They realized that their city was too low, so instead of asking the taxpayers to pay to rebuild the city in the same place where it would only get flooded again, they built it higher.

Having to pay for repairs themselves aside from a few charitable contributions from elsewhere, they made sure to repair the city in such a way that they would not be flooded again.

What's more important, they not only recovered through their own efforts, they learned from the experience.

"For those of us who had relatives who survived the Great Storm and heard the stories and saw the photographs -- we are very aware of the lessons learned," said Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas.

"It informs and has led to a high level of preparedness here even today," said Thomas, whose grandparents lived through the 1900 storm.

The 1900 storm was far worse for Galveston than Katrina was for New Orleans; the city was essentially not just flooded, but wiped out completely.  In that day, the Feds didn't bail you out, you had to do it yourself - so Galveston did.  Charity and donations from afar helped, of course, but Galveston provided the organization and macro-level solutions themselves.

Lessons Learned

Galveston learned two lessons in 1900: a) take hurricanes seriously and b) don't count on anybody else to save you.  Since then, they've learned even more from watching New Orleans mishandle Katrina:

The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, the city's largest employer, also begun disaster preparations.

The university has stockpiled dry ice, and every department has been warned they might have to lock down research sites, postpone surgeries and ready patients for evacuation.

"It's not only the memory of the Great Storm but what happened after Katrina," said UTMB spokesperson Marsha Canright. "We had a number of doctors and nurses who went to New Orleans and saw what happened to the medical facilities there and that is just not going to happen here."

We explained how the cost to US Taxpayers of repairing New Orleans is expected to top $200 billion.  At that time, we asked, "Why?  Why are we spending these vast sums to rebuild New Orleans?"

The reason we asked why we're spending so much public money is that much of New Orleans is 20 feet below sea level.  Why should we taxpayers spend $235,000 per New Orleans resident to rebuild their city in a place where the disaster not only can, but inevitably will happen again?

Here we are, a few short years since Katrina, and New Orleans is been threatened by not one, but two hurricanes.  How many times must we do the same thing over again expecting a different result?

Now that we've noted the lesson of Galveston, we've realized that we asked the wrong question.  The question isn't "Why are we taxpayers rebuilding new Orleans in the wrong place?" the question we should have asked is, "Why are we taxpayers paying to rebuild New Orleans at all?  It's their city, if they want to put it back where it will get flooded, they may, but on their heads be it."

The 1900 Galveston disaster was far worse for Galveston than Katrina was for New Orleans, but Galvestonians rebuilt their city themselves.  Knowing that they were spending their own money, they rebuilt the city so that it could not flood the same way again, unlike New Orleans who, since they know that someone else will pay, has no problem with rebuilding their city below sea level.

Hurricane Ike brought a tremendous storm surge, and large parts of the island did flood to a degree.  However, as bad as it looks on TV, imagine what it would have looked like in 1900, when the ground was as much as 16 feet lower.  There wouldn't have been anything sticking up above the water at all, or anything left to salvage - as, indeed, there pretty much wasn't back then.

Not only that, but many of today's Galveston houses are built on pilings off the ground.  Again, such houses are not impregnable - some burned, some were blown over, and some were knocked down by other debris, it appears - but they are a whole lot more survivable.

With respect to the latest hurricanes, Galveston is totally self-reliant, and their people are totally prepared.  They have their own emergency funds set aside; the city has financial arrangements in place so that they can issue bonds immediately in the event of a catastrophe.  They have pre-positioned emergency supplies, they have prepared contracts for repair supplies from Home Depot and other merchants, and in short are ready to get up and running right away.

Galveston will take whatever help they can get, of course, and we see reports of federal disaster teams working their way towards them.  But fundamentally, the city of Galveston has decided not to depend on anyone else, and not to sit around on their tails waiting on anyone else.  This attitude is why, even though the Weather Service warned Galvestonians that they were facing "certain death" if they stayed, a third of the population chose to do so anyway, including the mayor and other key leaders.

The Galveston method works.  They've survived many hurricanes since the 1900 disaster without a catastrophe or Katrina-like collapse. Now, in perhaps the greatest disaster they've endured since 1900, we will see this philosophy put to the test.

We've commented on what is called the "Principle of Subsidiarity."  This wise old rule says that the closer to the people the government authority is, the more responsive, flexible, accountable, and successful it is.

What does FEMA know about how to run New Orleans?  Nothing, and their ignorance showed.  The elected Galveston officials know their town, and if they mess up, they're accountable to their voters.

They have an additional incentive to do a good job - they live in Galveston, they'll suffer personally.  That gives them extra incentive to get things right.

When FEMA bureaucrats mess up, it may make the papers, but they can't be fired, they can't lose an election, they can't even have their pay suspended.  What incentives do they have?  Their only incentive is to mess up badly enough that they can ask for more money next year.

Our Founding Fathers based part of their justification for revolting against King George on the slogan, "no taxation without representation."  A part of this principle, held equally dear to our Founders, is that taxes and regulations should apply to those who create them so that they have to experience their effects along with the rest of us.

Our Congress has gotten away from that; Congress routinely exempts itself from "fair employment" laws, for instance, because congresspersons want to be free to hire staff who agree with their political positions.  Unlike the rest of us, they don't have to hire people they don't want to hire.  The sorry result is that they have absolutely no incentives to pass employment laws that are workable in the real world.

The FEMA bureaucrats have similar non-incentives - being government employees who can't be fired, they don't have to actually do any work if they don't want to.

Galveston's success in dealing with a far worse disaster than Katrina vs New Orleans' failure to recover is a case in point.  Instead of rolling up their sleeves and getting to work, New Orleans has waited, and waited, and waited for the US Government to bail them out.  Why should anyone be surprised that they're still waiting?

If any city has earned the honor of being an "All America" city, it's Galveston.  Whom else has done a better at the assigned objective: "address serious challenges with innovative, grassroots strategies that promote civic engagement and cooperation between the public, private and nonprofit sectors"?

Galveston should be an example to us all - they've learned that if you want something done, you should do it, and you should pay for it.  That way it'll get done right.

The leaders of New Orleans have demonstrated over and over that they don't really want their city repaired; they're content to keep the federal dollars flowing into their friends' pockets without anything much happening.  If the leaders really wanted their city repaired, they'd get off their duffs and repair their city.

They want it repaired badly enough to demand that we pay for their repairs, but they don't want it badly enough to pay for it themselves or even to let very much our money flow into actual progress.  Their mayor could visit Galveston to learn how it's done, but since they don't really want it done, there's no reason to bother making the trip.

On the other hand, there is hope, even for New Orleans, that citizens are beginning to learn the lesson of Galveston.  In their story "Half-Empty Streets," the Economist describes the usual waste, theft, cronyism, and crooked dealings we've come to expect of federally-funded projects, but then reports:

Although New Orleans is still a laid-back place that likes a good time, the trauma of the storm and the long slog back to normality seem to have energized it. Residents devour news, and a busy network of bloggers has sprung up. Groups of New Orleanians have organized themselves into volunteer militias tackling everything from home repairs to grass-cutting in the parks. That change of attitude could bode better for the future.

It seems to have taken a tremendous disaster, but perhaps New Orleans is learning the lesson of Galveston: if you want something done, do it yourself, with your own money.

In Galveston's case, the local leadership helped a great deal.  In New Orleans, local government is a major part of the problem, but the people are finally beginning to catch on and are starting to work on their city.  If they'd throw the rascals out, they'd make even more progress.

They'd do even better if they told the feds to take our money and butt out; federal interference, bureaucracy, and regulations cause more harm than the few dollars that manage to slip past the crooks can possibly help.  Getting the feds to go home would be a net benefit to the city, but it's extremely difficult to get a bureaucracy to let go of a project.

New Orleans may or may not be hit by another hurricane, but now that the feds are entrenched, we know that New Orleans will be submerged in red tape for all eternity.  It remains to be seen whether the city can survive federal "help."  By taking action themselves rather than wait for someone else, Galveston continues to keep the twin disasters of hurricane tides and government red tape at bay.

News Flash

As we are seeing every night on TV, Hurricane Ike hit Galveston and did a lot of damage, but Galveston's "please, mother, I'd rather do it myself" spirit is alive and well - and not just in Galveston itself.

In their article "Ike: Recovery That Works", the New York Sun reports:

Perhaps the most salient moment during Hurricane Ike came Saturday morning shortly before 8 a.m. when officials delivered two news conferences. From Washington, President Bush explained that Ike was a serious storm, that Secretary Chertoff of the Department of Homeland Security would fly to Houston when conditions permitted, and that the federal government was on the lookout for price gouging, a term of populist, not economic, meaning.

Thankfully, the White House did not feel it necessary to repeat its performance after Hurricane Gustav, wherein they appeared to believe that only the personal intercession of President Bush at a news conference in Texas, reading the same scripted talking points as other federal officials, could lead to an effective response.

The New York Sun believes in local responses to local emergencies.  The article told what's going on in Houston:

Because city and county governments are doing what they should do - enforcing the law, sharing critical information, and making honest assessments of the status and future of public services - they have cleared the way for the private sector to respond effectively.  By yesterday morning, all local grocery chains had reopened at least some of their locations, and their trucks had made it into town and were busy resupplying.  This would have been impossible if the city had been locked down, or if employees had been prohibited from coming to work.

Stressing that people should use their judgment rather than trying to freeze movement, officials have created space for what reports indicate is an incredible - and uncoordinated - response by people clearing streets and storm drains.  The official attitude that recovery is a grassroots effort, of which government is just one sector that plays a supporting role, means that recovery is already underway, and people don't have to wait for officials to draw up (and eventually fumble) a complex, top-down plan. [emphasis added]

The Houston city government has encouraged people to get out there and start fixing things instead of waiting on any government.

The history of Ike in both Houston and Galveston is far from fully written.  It is clear, though, both from the preparations beforehand and the reactions afterward, that despite similar magnitude of calamity by weather, the results of Katrina in New Orleans and Ike in Texas could hardly be more different.

Is this a peculiar characteristic of Houston and Galveston?  Or is the character of the people of Texas fundamentally different from the people of New Orleans?  The people of New Orleans are finally beginning to work on their city, but it took them three years to realize that the feds weren't going to get anything useful done.

There's a greater threat to Houston than even the hurricane...

The biggest fear at this point is that federal employees will soon blanket the area saying what President Reagan called the nine scariest words in the English language: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."

The recovery has already taken several large steps in the right direction.

Now let us hope that Washington doesn't trip it up.

We've really got to hand it to Galveston - not only did they have the gumption to fix their city back in 1900, their "can do" spirit seems to have infected people as far away as Houston.

Or is this the normal American response to disaster?  We're beginning to think that in sitting around for years waiting for the feds to bail them out, it's New Orleans' desire to have the federal government do it all which represents the aberration.

The Economist reports that New Orleans is beginning to catch on.  If only they'd learn Galveston's lesson of 1900 and put enough fill under their city to get above sea level, they might come out of it all right.

But then, there'd be no news next time, nor need for highly-paid bureaucrats, anchormen, lawyers, community organizers and the whole modern three-ring circus that feeds on disaster.  We can't have that, now, can we?

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
Thankfully, the White House did not feel it necessary to repeat its performance after Hurricane Gustav, wherein they appeared to believe that only the personal intercession of President Bush at a news conference in Texas, reading the same scripted talking points as other federal officials, could lead to an effective response.
September 16, 2008 9:51 AM
What is REALLY BAD about this is that it proves that all the yelling and screaming about Katrina was NOT a federal problem, it was a problem with New Orleans and the state. Disaster relief is primarily a local responsibility. Feds can help, but they're clueless, look how Boston ripped off the feds on the Big Dig.

The whole Katrina kerfluffle was the MSM wanting to bash Bush and make excuses for New Orleans government being utterly incompetent.
September 16, 2008 9:57 AM
Hearty Amen to this! The more we see catastrophes happening and being dealt with in other places than New Orleans, the more we can all see how bad the New Orleans government and citizens were/are. Shameful, the lot of them. Steal our money, blame us for not giving more and then rebuild the city in the same dang place!
September 16, 2008 10:51 AM
The Economist reports that New Orleans is beginning to catch on. If only they'd learn Galveston's lesson of 1900 and put enough fill under their city to get above sea level, they might come out of it all right. But then, there'd be no news next time, nor need for highly-paid bureaucrats, anchormen, lawyers, community organizers and the whole modern three-ring circus that feeds on disaster. We can't have that, now, can we?
September 16, 2008 12:00 PM
The author of this piece lives in La-La land. Try a little research next time buddy.
September 16, 2008 12:55 PM

What specifically is ill-researched?

I found this article to be VERY well-reasoned.
September 16, 2008 1:04 PM
I live in Galveston. I stayed through the storm. This guy doesn't know what he's talking about. We got slammed hard and it's going to take years to recover, and the poorest people will probably never recover. Thousands of people are out of work and many others are going to spend their life savings to keep their houses from being demolished.
October 14, 2008 8:21 AM
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