Lessons Learned in the Wake of Disaster: Private Charities Have a Central Role to Play

The wind dies down, the dust settles, and the rest of the country quickly forgets the magnitude of the tragedy in Oklahoma. But, that doesn’t mean that the work has stopped. Right now, there are hundreds of volunteers on the ground who are embraced by the community. No surprise there. The surprise is that the disaster relief we are seeing on the ground now is different than what we have seen play out during Katrina, Sandy, and other natural disasters through the years.

In the chaotic days following Katrina, volunteers swarmed the region with supplies from all over the country. FEMA, with the best intentions, was late to the game and in an attempt to centralize the relief efforts, closed off access to the region. Unfortunately, this resulted in semis full of supplies and water being turned away and warehouses of food left to rot.

I would like to think the days of trucks full of water turned away by FEMA workers after Katrina are over. And now, there is reason to hope we have made progress. In an article in the Christian Science Monitor, “When disaster strikes America, a more skilled response”, the writer reports that FEMA has embraced the local knowledge and resources that community groups like the Southern Baptist Convention already manage. Within hours after the first of the Oklahoma toranadoes, most of the search and rescue had been completed and there was already a center to reunite owners and their lost pets.

Groups like the Southern Baptist Convention have legions of volunteers and all manner of dry goods, water, and toiletries ready to be deployed to any disaster zone. Mike Ebert, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention said, “We noticed right away an increase in communication and a real desire on FEMA’s side to say, ‘Hey, we have all these resources here from Southern Baptist, let’s take advantage of it and let them know we’re really counting on them,’‚ÄČ” Mr. Ebert says.

With a budget of 13.6 Billion, FEMA should be well-equipped to handle most disasters. However, their bureaucratic ineffectiveness has been well-documented. Economist Christopher Coyne spotlights the inherent issues of large scale relief agencies such as FEMA in his recent book “Doing Bad by Doing Good.” He writes, “… as bureaucracies become every more hierarchical, information transmission problems, both up and down the hierarchy arise. Further, while centralization may reduce inter-agency administration costs, it does not necessarily reduce intra-agency compliance costs, because larger bureaucracies tend to have more protocols to ensure compliance…” So, a centralized government agency, like FEMA, while having vastly more resources to deploy during a disaster, still cannot mobilize as fast as a private, charitable group. The reason is not that the employees of FEMA don’t care or don’t want to help, it is that such a large organization comes with substansial protocols, chains of commands, and compliance that can not respond as quickly as needed in a natural disaster.

There must be coordination and division of labor, but with significant freedom for those involved in a relief effort to take initiative without worrying about complying with regulations. FEMA has recognized that private charities and their legions of volunteers are a valuable, even indispesible part of the recovery. Instead of turning them away after the storms in Oklahoma, they became an integral part of the effort to ensure victims get both the immediate and long term help they need. Bureaucracies have short memories. If tomorrow, the head of FEMA is ousted and a new one installed, this lesson may have to be learned over. Let’s hope we continue to see private charities as an indispensable part of any disaster relief effort.