Lessons learned: a conversation with Mercatus Center scholar Daniel Rothschild

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is winding down its intensive, five-year Gulf Coast Recovery Project, an investigation into the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Daniel Rothschild, director of the project, recently shared his insights with the Pelican Institute.* (Click below to listen to the audio file – 12 minutes.)


When asked how the initial project got started, Rothschild recalls that “we, like everyone else, across America and across the world, looked at the way that New Orleans and Louisiana and Mississippi were being devastated by Hurricane Katrina.”

“In the aftermath of the situation, we asked the question, what could be done better? How could communities better be prepared for this kind of disaster or a similar kind of disaster? What could we learn about the response and the rebuilding process over the next few years?”

Since than, approximately 30 scholars have published almost 60 research papers on a wide variety of topics related to the recovery. In addition, scholars have provided congressional testimony and delivered public lectures. The final articles and books are set to wrap up in the next few months.

The researchers took a broad approach, which included 450 hours of verbal interviews and an extensive review of qualitative and quantitative data. Rothschild notes that as social scientists “we can’t control for things in a laboratory style experiment,” but “this was an opportunity for us to learn from the people on the ground, who were going about the rebuilding.”

They looked at federal, state, and local governments, particularly with regard to how George W. Bush and the federal government would live up to their pledge to “partner with state and local government to rebuild the city of New Orleans.”

Of the subsequent policies, the Road Home Program stands out as representative of the many problems that emerged as policymakers sought to carry out their promises.

“Congress allotted money to the state… to help home owners and small apartment owners to rebuild their homes and their rental properties after Katrina, but after a year fewer than 1,000 checks had been cut.”

To explain the failure of such programs, Rothschild points to the concept of “signal noise.” This term describes a situation where government policy inadvertently confused people about what “the rules of the game were for the rebuilding process.” Under such circumstances, it is exceedingly difficult for social and economic entrepreneurs to make informed decisions.

His conclusion is that whatever the policy goal may be, simplicity and realism are essential. To avoid confusion, people “want clear, credible commitments about when these things are going to happen… That is why it’s so important for governments to start small – make small promises – fulfill those promises, and then move on to the next promise.”

Rather what happened is that “large promises were made that were unable to be fulfilled, and as a result small promises that would have been really critical to speeding along the rebuilding weren’t made or addressed at all.”

In 2007 Rothschild testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and he has “had some great conversations with people of both political parties on the Hill and in state governments.” However, he is not certain that policymakers have correctly interpreted his research.

“The problem is that there is still a general lack of understanding in Washington, as well as in state capitals, about what the abilities are of governments to respond to disasters… Democratic governments in particular are meant to be deliberative; they’re not meant to act quickly… That’s why it’s really important for governments to be prepared for natural disasters, because putting together rules and programs after the fact, through the democratic process, is going to be slow and deliberative, and in many cases it’s just going to encumber the recovery process.”

He hopes that government officials will consider just a few take home messages, so that in such scenarios people can swiftly get “back to a state of normalcy.”

He calls on them to be credible in their commitments; “start small in the promises you make – follow through on them and then move on. Have flexibility as much as possible, and trust people to make the right decisions for themselves, and their families, and their households, and their communities.”

He also cautions against using disasters as opportunities to re-engineer cities, as doing so delays and complicates the rebuilding process. “Any programs that are put together should really just be kept as simple and easy to understand as possible.”

*Rothschild did make clear, though, that his work is not over. Another Mercatus venture grew out of research in the Gulf Region, the State and Local Policy Project, which Rothschild also leads. The SLPP continues work at local and state levels, and is oriented toward “the relationship between the states and the federal government, interest group dynamics, and the incentives behind budget and spending issues to put forward ideas for sustainable budget reform.”

Fergus Hodgson is the capitol bureau reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be contacted at fhodgson@pelicanpolicy.org, and one can follow him on twitter.