ABOUT 10 days after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast last year, a front-page story in The
"Owing to stealthy acts of hospitality that are largely invisible to government, aid agencies, and the news media," the story began, "hundreds of thousands of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina seem to be disappearing -- into the embrace of their extended families. . . Community leaders say that the speed with which families have absorbed displaced people is remarkable, especially compared with the federal response."
The extraordinary generosity of ordinary Americans is indeed remarkable, and not only when it comes to relatives and friends. In Katrina's wake, millions of Americans opened their hearts, their wallets, and even their homes to help strangers. That help came in every form imaginable: from food, bedding, and clothing to cellphones, cars, and Internet access ; from truckloads of toys to offers of jobs ; from the barbers who gave free shaves and haircuts to hurricane victims in the Astrodome to the Delta Airlines CEO who flew to New Orleans with 20,000 pounds of blankets, food, generators, and toilet paper.
And then there was the money. Hundreds of millions of dollars were raised within days -- a charitable outpouring that broke all records -- and funneled to the Katrina refugees through a myriad of charitable organizations. When Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds solicited other bloggers' recommendations on where to donate, he was swamped with replies. I printed out the list on Sept. 1; it was already 12 pages long. It contained links to scores of charities large and small, including every relief organization I'd ever heard of.
Except one. Nobody recommended sending money to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
It was on Sept. 7, the day the Post was marveling at how swiftly hundreds of thousands of evacuees had already been helped without government involvement, that FEMA announced it would distribute $2,000 in "expedited assistance" to each household of hurricane victims. Households could also receive additional payments, up to $26,200, to pay for temporary shelter, property repairs, and other emergency expenses. That this was an open invitation to abuse was clear at once, but only last week did we find out just how egregious -- and costly -- that abuse turned out to be.
Of the $6.3 billion that FEMA handed out, as much as $1.4 billion -- nearly a quarter of the total -- went to crooks and con artists. According to the Government Accountability Office, FEMA paid millions of dollars to prison inmates, to people who listed cemeteries or post office boxes as their damaged homes, and for property that its own inspectors reported was nonexistent. Some people collected thousands of dollars in rent assistance even though they were staying in hotels paid for by FEMA. One man ran up an $8,000 government tab at the Pagoda Hotel in Honolulu, for example, yet was paid $2,358 to cover his rent for the same period.
Debit cards issued by FEMA to cover emergency expenses, the GAO reported, were frequently used for purchases "that did not appear to meet legitimate disaster needs." Like diamond jewelry. And fireworks. And season tickets to the New Orleans Saints, a bottle of champagne at Hooters, $300 worth of "Girls Gone Wild" videos, and a Caribbean vacation. And that doesn't include the 381 debit cards, worth $762,000, that FEMA lost.
This is what comes of turning charity into a government function. It is what comes of believing that a centralized government agency can respond to a local disaster more effectively than a multitude of private individuals acting on their own initiative and using their own judgment. It is what comes of letting politicians vow, as President Bush did after Katrina, to spend "whatever it costs" on post-disaster relief and rebuilding.
Presidents didn't always talk that way. When Congress in 1887 appropriated funds to buy seed for drought-stricken farmers in Texas, President Grover Cleveland vetoed the bill. "The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune," he wrote . "Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character."
He was right. Private donors came through for those Texas farmers with 10 times as much money as Cleveland had vetoed -- just as millions of Americans came to the aid of their countrymen last year, without waiting for Washington to tell them what to do. Think of how much more those Americans could have accomplished if the $1.4 billion that FEMA wasted had been theirs to spend instead.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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