Federalism is a political doctrine stressing the importance of the states’ relative autonomy from the federal government and, as such, is a distinct feature of the American government system. Federalism reserves for the states the powers not invested specifically into the federal government and, which should serve to promote the spirit of democracy and autonomy. Yet there are concerns that federalism while being a virtue in times of peace, becomes a downside in times of emergency. Hurricane Katrina and the COVID-19 outbreak both demonstrated that federalism can serve as a reason and pretext for the federal government to do little to address large-scale emergencies without sufficient speed and vigor.
When hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the destruction it brought reflected the limitation that federalism can impose in terms of responding to large-scale emergencies. True to the principles of this doctrine, the federal government and the Bush administration perceived themselves as a last line of defense and local and state authorities as primary responders. While this approach could have been sufficient if the emergence was less in magnitude, the destruction of infrastructure on an unprecedented scale complicated matters greatly. For example, the headquarters of the Louisiana National Guard were flooded, which impeded response to the catastrophe correspondingly (“The Storm” 00:50:21 – 00:50:24). Moreover, while expecting local and state authorities to deal with the problems on their own, the federal government left them underequipped, as more than one-third of its soldiers were in Iraq and Afghanistan (“The Storm” 00:50:24 – 00:50:28). As a result, the situation deteriorated quickly, and it was only on the sixth day of the disaster when the federal government stepped in and sent the Army forces to New Orleans (“The Storm” 00:49:45 – 00: 49:50). In short, Hurricane Katrina demonstrated how federalism can impede swift federal response to an emergency.
The situation is similar in this respect if one looks at the COVID-19 outbreak of 2020. Once again, the federal government perceived local and state healthcare agencies as the primary line of defense against the virus. No united national policy regarding the pandemic was developed even after the first case was identified in Seattle, Washington. Moreover, the federal government and President Trump specifically downplayed the importance of the threat and insisted that the situation was firmly under control (“Coronavirus Pandemic” 00:14:00 – 00:14:06). When the situation proved to be much more grave than anticipated, the federal government still did not take the initiative of offering help, waiting for the states’ requests instead (“Coronavirus Pandemic” 00:29:34 – 00:29:40). The result was a collection of local and state-level responses crafted without the guidance of a national policy. Moreover, the reliance on the states issuing requests ensured that when the federal government intervened, it took it longer to do so.
Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated largely the same problem that hurricane Katrina: reliance on the principles of federalism can run contrary to devising swift and effective responses to large-scale emergencies.
As one can see, federalism as a doctrine can be detrimental in times of crisis due to invariably making the federal government a reactive rather than proactive force. During hurricane Katrina, the federal government relied on under-strength local and state authorities whose infrastructure was badly damaged by the event, and it took six days for it to react to the crisis. History repeated itself during the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak when the federal government first downplayed the problem and then refrained from stepping in and offering help instead of waiting for the states’ requests.
“Coronavirus Pandemic.” PBS. Web.
“The Storm.” PBS. Web.