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Markets, minimized govt will improve storm response

An opinion column written by John Maginnis presents a largely valid view of the state’s efforts to deal with major storms, in light of the most recent assault by Hurricane Gustav. For the formation of better public policy, however, a few points need re-thinking, expansion, or correction.

The crux of the matter is whether the state ought to be in the paternalistic business of providing emergency shelter. There seems to be general agreement among all policy-makers that it should be and to not would be inconsistent with existing social welfare policy that promotes dependency. As it seems to be settled as a question of broader policy, this reality must be incorporated into more specific policy regarding sheltering evacuees.

More specifically, the most-encompassing policy concern depends upon the expected incidence of hurricanes potentially striking the state. The more the likelihood, the more one could argue for vaster, longer-term, and thereby more expensive solutions. While Maginnis blithely states “Climatologists attribute the increasing size and strength of recent hurricanes to global warming,” he clearly failed to educate himself on the matter. In fact, the last several studies on the topic have come to the opposite conclusion at least on the question of number.

And this of course not only assumes that there is actual global warming going on – and there hasn’t been for a decade – but that it also is mainly man-made, another assumption increasingly being debunked as unproven. As a result, this reduces the necessity for large, dedicated shelters to be built using taxpayer dollars.

More cost effective would appear to be the current plan of renting temporary structures, although here the state must take care. Presently, they are contracted for considerable periods of time including periods of the year they would be highly unlikely to be used for anything. Yet greater efficiencies of taxpayers’ dollars could be wrought and Louisiana would do better to create a program that stays in contact with real estate agents to discover in the spring the availability of large facilities that could be rented for something like July through October.

In pursuing this course, these facilities likely would not provide much in the way of amenities which became a problem in a few shelters because of contractor failures. Still, while they are undesirable such failures are by no means the end of the world and if evacuees have to go outside for toilets and miss taking a shower for a few days – which in the larger scheme of things would leave them, in terms of hygienic convenience, only better off than about 90 percent of the world population – it’s a small price for them to pay for free service and too large of one to burden taxpayers with by providing more luxurious accommodations either temporary or permanent in nature.

As for the independent public that evacuates itself, the major question is here power provision in the aftermath. With power off in many areas, gas could not be pumped and the ripple effect delayed workers and returners, restocking of necessities in stores, etc. Agriculture Secretary Mike Strain’s idea of having about 400 locations statewide outfitted with generators is a good idea, but only if the program is made voluntary and the state lends the money to operators to buy them. This would ensure that costs get passed along only to likely users down the road, and would steer the generators towards the larger operators that are the most accessible to traffic. That they will be up and running not only in major but also minor emergencies will be incentive enough for operators to get in on this deal.

A final, related issue involves better securing of the power grid. In tandem with the generator approach, a suggestion made by Gov. Bobby Jindal should be pursued to improve the hardiness of the transmission system. However, it should be done by the utilities themselves, and allowed by regulators to pass costs along to ratepayers, who ultimately will be the beneficiaries of this, rather than on the entire state’s taxpayers.

Not to be missed is that these are relatively small glitches in the larger scheme of things, and understood that what the state and local governments did do reduced significantly the potential casualties. Still, market-based solutions with minimized government involvement can make future responses even better.

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