Think Locally On Relief

By Jeb Bush
Friday, September 30, 2005

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Americans are looking to their leaders for answers to the tragedy and reassurances that the mistakes made in the response will not be repeated in their own communities. Congressional hearings on the successes and failures of the relief effort are underway.

As the governor of a state that has been hit by seven hurricanes and two tropical storms in the past 13 months, I can say with certainty that federalizing emergency response to catastrophic events would be a disaster as bad as Hurricane Katrina.

Just as all politics are local, so are all disasters. The most effective response is one that starts at the local level and grows with the support of surrounding communities, the state and then the federal government. The bottom-up approach yields the best and quickest results -- saving lives, protecting property and getting life back to normal as soon as possible. Furthermore, when local and state governments understand and follow emergency plans appropriately, less taxpayer money is needed from the federal government for relief.

Florida's emergency response system, under the direction of Craig Fugate, is second to none. Our team is made up of numerous bodies at all levels of government, including state agencies, the Florida National Guard, first responders, volunteer organizations, private-sector health care organizations, public health agencies and utility companies. Once a storm is forecast for landfall in Florida, all these groups put their disaster response-and-recovery plans into high gear.

Natural disasters are chaotic situations even when a solid response plan is in place. But with proper preparation and planning, it is possible -- as we in Florida have proved -- to restore order, quickly alleviate the suffering of those affected and get on the road to recovery.

The current system plays to the strengths of each level of government. The federal government cannot replicate or replace the sense of purpose and urgency that unites Floridians working to help their families, friends and neighbors in the aftermath of a disaster. If the federal government removes control of preparation, relief and recovery from cities and states, those cities and states will lose the interest, innovation and zeal for emergency response that has made Florida's response system better than it was 10 years ago. Today's system is the reason Florida has responded successfully to hurricanes affecting our state and is able to help neighboring states.

But for this federalist system to work, all must understand, accept and be willing to fulfill their responsibilities. The federal government and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are valuable partners in this coordinated effort. FEMA's role is to provide federal resources and develop expertise on such issues as organizing mass temporary housing. FEMA should not be responsible for manpower or a first response -- federal efforts should serve as a supplement to local and state efforts.

Florida learned many lessons from Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and we have continued to improve our response system after each storm. One of the biggest lessons is that local and state governments that fail to prepare are preparing to fail. In Florida, we plan for the worst, hope for the best and expect the unexpected. We understand that critical response components are best administered at the local and state levels.

Our year-round planning anticipates Florida's needs and challenges -- well before a storm makes landfall. To encourage our residents to prepare for hurricane season this year, for 12 days Florida suspended the state sales tax on disaster supplies, such as flashlights, batteries and generators. Shelters that provide medical care for the sick and elderly take reservations long before a storm starts brewing. To ensure that people get out of harm's way in a safe and orderly manner, counties coordinate with each other and issue evacuation orders in phases. Satellite positioning systems, advanced computer software and a uniform statewide radio system allow all of these groups and first responders to communicate when the phones, cell towers and electricity go out.

The Florida National Guard is deployed early with clear tasks to restore order, maintain security and assist communities in establishing their humanitarian relief efforts. Trucks carrying ice, water and food stand ready to roll into the affected communities once the skies clear and the winds die down. Counties predetermine locations, called points of distribution, that are designed for maximum use in distributing these supplies.

Florida's response to Hurricane Katrina is a great example of how the system works. Within hours of Katrina's landfall, Florida began deploying more than 3,700 first responders to Mississippi and Louisiana. Hundreds of Florida National Guardsman, law enforcement officers, medical professionals and emergency managers remain on the ground in affected areas. Along with essential equipment and communication tools, Florida has advanced over $100 million in the efforts, including more than 5.5 million gallons of water, 4 million pounds of ice and 934,000 cases of food to help affected residents.

I am proud of the way Florida has responded to hurricanes during the past year. Before Congress considers a larger, direct federal role, it needs to hold communities and states accountable for properly preparing for the inevitable storms to come.

The writer, a Republican, is governor of Florida.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company