Ten Years After Katrina: Government Can Save Lives and Money

by Sidney Shapiro

August 27, 2015

With the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina upon us, looking back on CPR’s landmark report on the disaster reveals two essential public policy insights. One is that a series of government policy failures resulted in a far worse disaster than would have occurred if government had been more pro-active.  The second is that more effective government requires addressing and resolving what are often difficult policy issues, something that requires an ongoing dialogue and attention to what experts know and do not know about our options.  Today, ten years after Katrina, the country has retreated even further from having pro-active government. Many elected leaders refuse even to discuss what are the appropriate functions of government, let alone what is the preferable governmental policy option. For them, there is simply no justification for expanding the government or even for adequately funding the government that we have. 

The deep irony is that, as conservatives, they ignore the fact that spending money on pro-active government can save billions of dollars in averted costs.  Katrina is a prime example. The cost to the country has been estimated to be around $100 billion and may have been in excess of $200 billion. The prevention methods discussed in the CPR report would have saved the country billions.  Moreover, for many of us, the cost of lives lost and the extraordinarily disruption to families cannot readily be measured in dollars and cents.  In short, we continue to pay, and will continue to pay, a very high price for denying that government can make a difference.

The line-in-the-sand opponents of government ignore another basic lesson of public policy that they, as conservatives, ought to appreciate.  Although they extoll the virtues of markets, the anti-government crowd ignores what every basic economic course teaches: polluters and others must pay for the damages that they cause to people and the environment for markets to function properly. Nevertheless, in the pursuit of reducing government, the “just say no” elected officials protect polluters and others from paying for these damages. As a result, as I demonstrated in an empirical study, individuals and their families end up paying for this damage, often with assistance from the rest of us as taxpayers when these individuals are subsequently forced into poverty by.  

What are the functions of government?  It is to keep our families, our neighbors, and us as safe and secure as reasonable public policy can achieve.  Sensible public policy would save lives and money for the country. That is a central lesson of Katrina, a lesson yet to be learned.

Watch Shapiro and fellow CPR Scholars discuss the lessons learned from Katrina in the CPR Roundtable on Katrina+10. And Read Tom McGarity's Katrina+10 post, Hurricane Katrina and the Perversity Thesis.


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Sidney A. Shapiro holds the Fletcher Chair in Administrative Law at the Wake Forest University School of Law and is the Associate Dean for Research and Development. He is a member of the board of directors of the Center for Progressive Reform.

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