KATRINA: Making FEMA a First Responder

We’ve heard a lot lately about the notion that FEMA should have taken, and should take in the future, a more leading role in making the federal government, in effect, a first responder to natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Now, there’s a fair debate here over whether the federal government ought to improve its ability to respond quickly with redundant capacity to provide emergency supplies, evacuation, etc. in the event that state or local first responders are for one reason or another incapacitated.
But we should resist, at all costs, the idea (pushed by Mickey Kaus, among others) that the federal government should centralize a greater amount of the nation’s first-response capacity. Let’s look at two aspects of this problem.
1. Vulnerability
Let’s think rationally here, in terms Osama bin Laden would understand, and we – as long as we’re fighting him, or fighting anybody else, for that matter – can ill afford to forget. We have two choices:
A. Centralize disaster-response with FEMA, with the heads of DHS and FEMA and the President personally responsible for making the crucial decisions.
B. Decentralize disaster-response, with decisionmaking power in the hands of 50 Governors and scores of Mayors.
Even the leader of a ragtag terrorist operation can tell you that decentralizing authority into local cells that can operate on their own for long stretches makes you less vulnerable to your enemies. The more we centralize our response to disasters with FEMA, the more we hand our enemies the ability to cripple our response to multiple simultaneous attacks in different parts of the country. Imagine if Flight 93 had hit the White House – wouldn’t it then have been a particularly good thing that Rudy and Pataki could put the NYPD and NYFD into action without awaiting word from Uncle Sam? Why on earth should our response to this disaster be to centralize rather than distribute our ability to respond in a crisis?
2. Local Knowledge
As critics of the Iraq War never tire of reminding us – and, for that matter, as opponents of the Vietnam War often noted – for out-of-towners, there’s no substitute for knowing the neighborhood. Even closer to home, consider the lesson of the 2004 election. As was much remarked at the time, outside of the big cities – where Democrats had longstanding political machines skilled in getting voters to the polls on Election Day – Republican get-out-the-vote efforts were generally more successful than those of the Democratic side, in part because the Republican “GOTV” operation was carried out locally by local voters, whereas the Democrats in many areas were dependent upon outside groups. While you can debate the degree of importance of this factor, virtually every post-mortem on the election concluded that the Democrats need to improve their local grassroots operations.
What has this got to do with disaster preparedness? Quite a lot, actually. Just as with voter turnout, getting people to evacuate a city or gather in a safe shelter is a job in which there’s just no substitute for local knowledge. You have to know who lives where, how to persuade them to budge, and you have to know the fastest way out of Dodge. And even moreso than in doing Election Day turnout, you don’t have time to learn all of that in the chaos of a disaster or an attack that may give just a few days’ or hours’ warning, if even that much.
By all means, let’s talk about improving the federal response to disasters; regardless of who deserves credit and blame for the response to Hurricane Katrina, nobody who watched the unfolding of events in New Orleans could conclude that there is no room left for improvement at all levels. But in so doing, let’s not make ourselves more dependent upon Washington and less reliant on the people who are in the best position to know their own turf.

5 thoughts on “KATRINA: Making FEMA a First Responder”

  1. You’re right. This is the heart of FEMA’s and Bush’s leadership failure. With respect to FEMA it is a consequence of having a lawyer in charge. Why Bush didn’t understand this, I don’t know. In some cases you need to have people in charge who care more about results than about process. If a state or local actor were not getting the job done, a good FEMA leader would have stepped in first and worried later about the propriety of usurping state or local authority. Indeed, a good leader would step in and not worry about getting fired later knowing that lives may have been saved by his or her action. Better to be fired for action than for inaction. This is not unlike the situation of so-called looters who stole school buses to evacuate people or who raided grocery stores. Did they steal? Did they break the law?. Are they and the others they helped still alive? Yep.

  2. jimbo is wrong.
    If the feds had overrun their duties and gone in to N.O. anyway. You’d hear the mayor and the governor whining about how Bush invaded Louisiana. FEMA is not a rescue organization. The only way we could have avoided the problems(looting and resupply of those in shelters) was to bring in the military. Which Governor Blanco had to request! She did not request it in a timely manner. You can’t call the President and say, “Send me everything!”. She should have had specific requests.
    The locals know New Orleans and knew what would happen. There are places in N.O. that never did flood but there are no shelters there and there are no plans for them. Nagin knew that there would be rioting and looting . Hell, it happens every day in N.O. on a smaller scale. They weren’t just taking food.
    Crank is correct in saying local control is the key. Nagin controls his law enforcement and local OEP and Blanco has the State police, La. OEP and the Nat’l guard. That should have been enough but neither leader(or pandering politician) was prepared.
    All and I mean all of the failure was local.
    If there is a congressional investigation, Democrats will certainly have their finger prints all over the scene of the crime.
    BTW-Blanco spoke last night to the La. legislature. She is a complete idiot. Even though I didn’t vote for her, I’m completely ashamed.

  3. Clearly the Feds should be a last resort, if only because institutional inertia makes it difficult to respond quickly. What I think we’ve seen over the last 5 years though shows that FEMA is a symptom, and not the disease.
    Too many people, in many cases conservative republicans, seem to feel that the private sector will always do a better job. However, they fail to understand that the roll of the US governement is clearly stated in the preamble. It’s necessary for a government to perfom a minimum of functions, but it has to do those well. Some of them are: the military, interstte traffic and commerce, a post office, international intelligence.
    Well, the post office is told to run itself for profit, Amtrak is told the same, the interstate highway system is to be repaired with state funding. New York City has such a low regard for federa intelligence that the NYPD has taken it upon itself to do it, and they are now considered among the best in the world. It makes sense. You need Arabic speakers? In Israel you go down the block, in New York, you go to Brooklyn, in DC, you first make sure they have contributed to teh RNC, and that they are not gay.
    FEMA should have been involved at the beginning, as Katrina was not a local phenomenon. It was clearly an interstate event, and thus the province of the federal government. I don’t think racism is involved, I really don’t. I do think that much of the non-New Orleans stricken areas will recover first, as such a cleanup is at least standardized. We’ve done it before, as in Andrew, Ivan and Camille. The last times major cities have been hit like New Orleans was San Fransisco and the Chicago Fire. New York at 9/11 had the good fortune to have, as it has in the past, excellent leadership (few doubt that LaGuardia, or Koch, or now Bloomberg woudl have done well), Sadly, New Orleans never had the disaster preparation it always needed. New York had what it never knew it needed. So blame them all.

  4. Friday Lonkzookery – 16 Sep 2005

    Gimme another shot of this beer Beer that’s 25.4% alcohol and served in a shot glass. Leave it to the Germans… Iraq Border Fort You’ve got to see it to believe it. Google Earth threatens democracy I think there’s something…

  5. FEMA is not to blame here, nor Bush. When Florida was ravaged by four hurricanes last year you heard nothing about the incompetence of the federal goverment. Why? because the LOCAL authorities knew how to access and best use the resources availible to them. Shame on the politicians hiding behind their liberal mouth pieces to mask their incompetance. The blame is and should be at home.

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