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Quick notes on Katrina & emergency response

1. Brownie's gone (bravo), but he's just the face on the problem: wrong face, wrong time.

2. Two articles in today's WSJ are well worth reading. The first is about Jay Roberts, a property owner in Luling, Louisiana, whose business now operates out of The Sailfish, a bar in the Mississippi River town. It's a great story, but here's the anecdote I find most interesting, which stems from Roberts' rental of an empty Kmart store to State Farm Insurance. The building is now stuffed with desks and 500 claims adjusters processing claims. State Farm didn't waste time setting up shop:

Two days before Katrina hit, Joe Green, an assistant manager for administrative services for State Farm Insurance in Tulsa, Okla., was watching a weather report when it became apparent he and his nine-man crew were about to enter a race toward the storm. Mr. Green's job is to set up the company's catastrophe, or "cat," office near the epicenter of major disasters. Mr. Green drove for three days, splitting the team in half to scour Louisiana and Mississippi on a desperate search for office space and hotel rooms.

At almost every turn, the team found itself competing with nimble electric company crews, who were after the same commodity. Mr. Green blew into the Sailfish the day after the storm, having been directed there by the local Wal-Mart manager. Mr. Roberts was inside and the negotiations began. The Kmart went for $25,000 a month, plus an upgraded climate system, for which State Farm is paying.

This story encapsulates the differential speed of response between private and public agencies. The former are quick on their feet, less burdened by red tape, don't waste precious time grappling over questions of authority, turf, etc.

The second, by former GE CEO Jack Welch, adds more perspective on this issue. Welch discusses the "Five Stages of Crisis Management," in which "Containment" is stage two.

Containment: For this second predictable phase in crises, Katrina was no exception. In companies, containment usually plays out with leaders trying to keep the "matter" quiet -- a total waste of energy, as all problems, and especially messy ones, eventually get out and explode. In Katrina's case, containment came in a related form, buck-passing -- pushing responsibility for the disaster from one part of government to another in hopes of making it go away. The city and state screamed for federal help, the feds said they couldn't send in the troops (literally) until the state asked for them, the state said it wouldn't approve the federal relief plan, and round and round went the baton.

No layer is a good layer. Bureaucracy, with its pettiness and formalities, slows action and initiative in any situation, business or otherwise. In a crisis like Katrina, it can be deadly. The terrible part is that Katrina might have avoided some of its bureaucratic bumbling if FEMA had not been buried in the Department of Homeland Security. As an independent entity for decades prior, FEMA fared better. But inside Homeland Security, FEMA was a layer down, twisted in and hobbled by government hierarchy. And to make matters worse, its head, Michael Brown, appears to have been an inexperienced political operative -- making his appointment an example of bureaucratic inefficiency at its worst.

Restoring FEMA's independence from DHS should be explored, but don't get your hopes up: that's just one layer in a multi-layer government failure.