Anyone who's ever filed a tax return or visited the Department of Motor Vehicles understands that government does two things well: spend our money and waste our time. Unfortunately, both traits were on display during the response to Hurricane Katrina.
A House select committee headed by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., says the government displayed "fecklessness, flailing and organizational paralysis." The committee report lays out 90 flaws in the Katrina response and notes that all levels of government failed.
Oh, plenty of money was going out. Last September, the federal government was spending about $1 billion per day -- and it generated plenty of waste. The Federal Emergency Management Agency handed thousands of checks (for $2,000 each) to charlatans.
FEMA also wasted money on housing. It spent $236 million to rent three cruise ships for evacuees. The ships were never more than half full. And don't forget the manufactured homes, some 10,777 of which are rotting away in Arkansas because FEMA ordered more than it needed.
As Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, explained, the waste happened because the government took a "pay first, ask questions later" approach.
The federal government has promised to fix its problems. Michael Chertoff, secretary of Homeland Security, says he'll deliver "a fully integrated and unified" department before the next hurricane season. Fine. But let's remember, not all answers can be found in Washington.
It would be better to look toward an institution that didn't fail during Katrina: Wal-Mart.
The world's largest retailer had 171 facilities in the path of the storm. But as Jason Jackson, the company's director of business continuity, told a Senate committee, "We were able to recover and reopen 83 percent of our facilities in the Gulf area within six days."
One key reason for Wal-Mart's success, Jackson said, is "associates who are dedicated to their communities." That local connection helped it deliver goods when government failed. As Investor's Business Daily reported in September, "While local and federal groups suffered communications problems and bickered over who was in charge, Wal-Mart sprang into action."