August 28, 2006 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

What went right: Just folks helping folks

There are two ways to learn from disasters. One is to figure out what went wrong and try to fix it. The second is to profit from what went right and try to build on that.

In the wake of the flawed response to Hurricane Katrina, we have spent far too much time trying to fix blame, point fingers and hyperventilate over our failures than recognize the courage, determination and creativity of Americans who saved lives and property. That's a shame. Efforts that worked during Katrina are the ones most likely to help us to meet future disasters. Emulating them ought to be our priority.

Washington's response to Katrina has been predictable. Stung by the criticism of the slow response of the federal government, Congress and the administration have spent the last year scrutinizing the failures and vowing "never again." The result is that by the onset of this hurricane season Washington was on a war footing, primed to dump assistance on the first state that saw a rain squall touch its shores. As a result, the government now focuses on hurricane response out of proportion to all of its other missions.

After it was created, the Department of Homeland Security outlined 15 catastrophic kinds of disasters where the federal government needed to be able to provide major assistance. A major hurricane was only one. Yet since Katrina, federal agencies have spent almost as much time planning for a major hurricane as they have planning for the 14 others.

Not only have we fixated on only one kind of disaster; we also have come to expect that in the wake of any catastrophe, Washington should be able to solve all of our problems. That's a terrible idea. In fact, the opposite is true - and Katrina proved it. The most rapid and effective responses were those of local communities.

One district in Louisiana, for example, had 40 operating shelters in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Tens of thousands of people were sheltered and fed by local groups. Local faith-based organizations responded quickly and effectively by providing facilities and resources and by mobilizing volunteers - all without government direction or assistance.

In fact, Louisiana residents generally rated the assistance provided by private sources such as nonprofit, community, and faith-based organizations substantially higher than they did assistance from federal, state and local governments and national organizations such as the Red Cross. Local groups are and will always be the core of any effective response by a community to disasters large and small.

The worst reaction to the aftermath of Katrina would be to adopt a more heavy-handed federalized approach that would undercut the very kinds of responses that proved the most effective.

What Washington should focus on is being ready and able to help state and local governments when their responders are overwhelmed. That means not stepping in and telling them what to do, but quickly providing the assistance they need when they really need it. Washington should worry about whether its own responders are ready to go, rather than funnel billions in grants back to state and local governments.

The Coast Guard offers a case in point. The Coast Guard saved at least 33,000 lives during and after the storm. They were the first federal responders on the scene and without question the most effective. Yet Congress still underfunds the Coast Guard's modernization budget and sends its men and women into harm's way on ships and planes old enough to collect Social Security.

Likewise, the National Guard will always be essential to backing state and local governments in any large-scale catastrophe, as it did after Katrina. Yet the Guard doesn't have units properly organized and prepared for this mission. In addition, the war on terror has made heavy demands on its people and equipment. Congress, however, has done nothing to ensure that these forces will be funded adequately so that they can respond to missions at home and abroad.

The American answer to Katrina was remarkable. A less effective response by the nation would have resulted in tens of thousands dead. We should be building on the successes that saved lives - not simply throwing Washington's time and money at the problem.

James Carafano is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), and author of the new book "G.I. Ingenuity."

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer