And while Chertoff admits Katrina caught the government flat-footed, Wal-Mart is always ready. In his book "The World is Flat," New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote, "The minute Wal-Mart's meteorologists tell headquarters a hurricane is bearing down on Florida, its supply chain automatically adjusts to a hurricane mix in the Florida stores." That means plenty of non-perishable food and critical items such as generators appear in stores even before disaster strikes.
Wal-Mart has plenty to teach the government. "When FEMA or another agency places a blanket order of 100 trailers of water, we often question if the person placing the order really knows what 100 trailers of merchandise looks like," Jackson testified. "Usually the answer to this is that the person making the order was given a dollar amount to spend, and they do not comprehend the size of this order or what it means."
Wal-Mart does what government intervention can't: It drives down prices and makes life better -- in New Orleans and, soon, in Chicago.
The company opened a store last month in Evergreen Park (where I was born), after the city council refused to allow it inside the city limits. Some 25,000 people applied for the store's 325 jobs, which suggests Wal-Mart is popular with employees as well as consumers.
After Katrina, even Wal-Mart's critics sang its praises. "It's hard to imagine any government program matching the efficiency of a Wal-Mart," wrote consulting firm Lynch Ryan on its Weblog, adding, "Government has a lot to learn from Wal-Mart."
Unless we change our approach -- bringing in more private, local expertise and less federal bureaucracy -- we'll be reminded of that the next time disaster strikes.