It's just a coincidence, I'm sure, but every major event that happens in the United States seems to be read as showing that we need more intervention from the federal government.
The Katrina disaster is an excellent case in point. As soon as it happened and people in the region had to put up with the consequences of having chosen to live in an area long known to be vulnerable to just such a catastrophe, the complaints rang through the press regarding the alleged slowness of the federal government in responding. Relatively little attention was paid to the disgracefully slow and inept response by the governments of New Orleans and Louisiana, and likewise to the fact that the federal government stepped in as soon as was legally permitted.
No, the federal government was responsible for everything, including the weather and the choice of people to live in places sure to be inundated at some point or other. And of course the blustering, handwring, and investigations followed. The White House report on the federal response to Katrina, released today, predictably calls for more federal control over such matters. As the New York Times reports:
The federal government, the report said, failed to sufficiently appreciate that there are certain types of disasters, like Hurricane Katrina, where local and state governments will be so overwhelmed that they will largely be unable to help themselves.
Perhaps, but in this case the state and local governments were not competent and overwhelmed; they were overwhelmed because they were grotesquely inept, disorganized, and unprepared. The way for that to be handled is for the voters to replace their inept leaders with competent ones. If they refuse to do that, that's their choice, and they should have to accept the consequences.
The federal report proceeds from this faulty premise to the expected conclusion. The Times continues:
The Department of Defense, as was proposed by President Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, would play a more active role in major disasters, the report suggests, perhaps leading the federal response to help accelerate search and rescue, evacuation and the delivery of supplies.
The report does not detail exactly when such a takeover might be appropriate, or how it would happen, suggesting only that the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense study the matter and come up with a plan. But it does offer examples of the types of incidents that would merit such a step, including perhaps a nuclear attack or "multiple simultaneous terrorist attacks causing a breakdown in civil society."
The latter certainly merit a central role for the federal government, as they would come under that government's responsibility for protecting us from foreign threats. When it comes to natural disasters, however, it is decidedly unclear when the federal government would have to be the main responder and when states and local governments should. What makes a disaster "federal"?—we should have to ask. But we will not do that, you can be sure, because the answer is that what really makes a disaster federal is the reaction of the media.
What will most certainly happen, then, is that the federal government will become the default option for management of the response to any significant disasters, natural or otherwise, occurring within the U.S. borders. That, of course, will require a huge, permanent bureaucracy to be established at the Department of Homeland Security, a bureaucracy that will inevitably become much bigger and vastly more expensive over time, as is the norm for federal departments and programs.