DISTRICT OFFICIALS deserve praise for their prompt response to the needs of displaced Gulf Coast residents. The rescue operation launched Friday demonstrated how communities can quickly mobilize to help each other at a time of crisis, even when the federal government falls down on the job. But the District's mission to the storm survivors encountered widespread confusion, made worse by governmental red tape and indecision. Surveying the federal response to Hurricane Katrina and observing that the Washington region itself could be subject to a disaster or terrorist attack, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) said yesterday on WTOP Radio's "Ask the Executive" program that area officials "need to know what we can count on and not count on from FEMA." That observation is aptly borne out by the District's experience in New Orleans and other flood-ravaged communities.

The District's convoy of 10 buses filled with food, diapers, water and 30 D.C. officials set out Friday, hoping to return this week with as many as 400 evacuees. Instead, the buses are expected to return today with the mission only partially accomplished. Tons of relief supplies were, in fact, delivered, but to the Alabama Red Cross. The caravan also picked up four people in New Orleans and dropped them off at a Red Cross staging area, according to WTOP Radio. But there were no crowds of evacuees waiting in New Orleans as had been promised. Nor did the caravan find evacuees waiting for transport in Baton Rouge, La., where it was dispatched by officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Fuel was given to the Louisiana National Guard, but the buses are returning with only one or two hurricane evacuees. Meanwhile, nearly 300 evacuees were airlifted to Washington yesterday and are being housed in the D.C. Armory.

City leaders and emergency preparedness workers expected to find chaotic conditions near the damaged communities, with thousands of displaced storm victims on the move and shelter space dwindling on the battered Gulf Coast. But they also expected the federal relief effort to be better organized and at least up to managing the influx of assistance pouring in from around the country. That was not the case.

There is a lesson here for the Washington region. The federal-local law enforcement partnership that worked smoothly during the sniper attacks may not reemerge in a future natural disaster. As Mr. Duncan noted, FEMA is a changed agency, buried within a huge, slow-moving federal bureaucracy. If ever there were a time for local leaders to come together to review and coordinate their emergency and relief efforts, it's now. Otherwise, we may witness another descent into chaos -- only next time it will be closer to home.