Sunday, June 18, 2006

Fixing FEMA: Turn It Over to Wal-Mart!

The bumbling performance of FEMA during and after Katrina showed not only a lack of planning but an inability to come up with creative solutions when faced with a disaster of epic proportions. People sat in the sun or in sweltering buildings for days at a time with no food, no water, and no chance for escape from the horrific conditions. Elderly people and infants died of dehydration while FEMA fiddled around with the question of who was responsible for what duties.

Meanwhile, hours after the disaster, Wal-Mart had truckloads of bottled water on its way to New Orleans. These trucks with their lifesaving cargo were stopped and then turned back -- by FEMA.

I'm no fan of privatization; I feel that sometimes the government puts corporate profit ahead of the services it is supposed to provide. But maybe we need to take a second look at Wal-Mart. The company has the most efficient distribution system in the world, able to move vast quanities of goods long distances at top speed. It also has expertise at negotiating the lowest wholesale prices with its vendors. While that has gotten it in trouble with critics, being able to supply essential goods at low prices after Katrina could have saved the government millions, if not billions, of dollars.

Just imagine if Wal-Mart, after watching the TV news -- something apparently no one at FEMA bothered to do -- and finding out about the people stranded at the Astrodome and the Convention Center, had been able to immediately dispatch water, food, medical supplies, and other necessities to New Orleans as well as to other parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, to arrive within hours instead of days. Imagine Wal-Mart setting up emergency shelter, and providng fast transportation out of the area where necessary. Imagine Wal-Mart setting up efficient systems of dispensing financial aid not vulnerable to abuse.

FEMA continues to fumble the aftermath of the natural disasters of last summer, and is changing with the clumsy slowness of many bloated government agencies. It's time for a big change at FEMA.

It's time for Wal-Mart to take over.

FEMA Fraud, or a Creative Solution?

The House Homeland Security Subcommittee held meetings this past week on Katrina fraud, waste, and abuse, and cited over a billion dollars in -- well, fraud, waste and abuse. The whole situation was certainly bungled by government officials and taken advantage of by unsrupulous civilians.

But among the discussion of incarcerated individuals getting FEMA checks, debit cards used for massages and strip joints, and double payments for housing, one interesting item was mentioned. Apparently some enterprising soul used relief money to put a down payment on a house in Georgia.

Is that really fraud? Or is it just a really creative solution to a personal crisis? Think about it -- the money was used for housing, which was needed after the disaster, but instead of ensconcing oneself in a hotel for months at a time and sweating out FEMA payments, this savvy individual bought a home, thus coming up with a permanent solution. Presumably he or she also went out and found a job and began a new life to be able to make the paymnts on the home.

I don't know the specifics of the situation; I hope that the person who bought the home was a genuine victim of Katrina and eligible for the help rather than an opportunist uninvolved in the original disaster. If so, I don't think we should pursue this individual for fraud, but give him or her a pat on the back and say, "More power to you!"

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Lessons from Haditha and Ishaqi: Nothing More to Win

The news is full of reports about Marines suspected of massacre in the Iraqi village of Haditha, and of other Marines cleared in a seemingly similar incident in Ishaqi. Both incidents resulted in men, women and children dead; one has been declared justified, the other not.

We need to look at what situation we are putting our soldiers in and what we are doing to the emotional and psychological health of Iraqis, including little children, who have to live with the presence of soldiers in their streets, detaining them, and searching their homes. One has only to look at the face of a five-year-old girl as her family waits outside their home, her face contorted in fear as she starts to cry, to realize that no one is winning here.

As long as the U.S. military is in Iraq there will be an endless supply of insurgents angered by U.S. presence and actions. And every confrontation, every firefight, is likely to recruit more insurgents angry at what is happening in their country.

Are the insurgents right to set off IEDs and blow up soldiers and innocent civilians? Of course not. But we are putting our troops through constant stress and demanding actions of them that no one should have to commit, and we are putting the Iraqi people through a daily hell of chaos and fear.

It's time to recognize that war does things to people; it damages the psyches of soldiers and civilians alike; it is a cruel, destructive act that should not be imposed on anyone. It's time to recognize that war itself is evil; and it's time to bring our troops home.