Competent, effective government still exists

COMPETENT, EFFECTIVE GOVERNMENT STILL EXISTS…. In general, the ability of government agencies to respond to a natural disaster only draws attention when agencies fall short. The media tends to look for “the next Katrina” to demonstrate that feckless bureaucracies and government incompetence are the new norm.

But they don’t have to be, and with an effective administration, they’re not. The New York Times has a report today on the emergency response in the Southeast, where the death toll stands at 349 people, with most of the victims in Alabama. It is the deadliest natural disaster on American soil since Hurricane Katrina, but in this case, the governmental response is earning praise, not condemnations.

Top federal officials, including Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, were in touch with [Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley] shortly after the tornadoes landed Wednesday, according to a timeline from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

FEMA officials contacted the White House about the need for a federal emergency declaration even before Alabama had submitted a formal request that evening, said Art Faulkner, the state’s emergency management director. It was quickly granted.

Mr. Obama spoke to Mr. Bentley, a Republican, on Wednesday night and to the governors of four other affected states on Thursday. He sent the FEMA administrator, W. Craig Fugate, to Alabama on Thursday. Five members of the cabinet are expected in the state on Sunday. […]

By late Thursday, Mr. Obama had signed the disaster declaration for Alabama, and later did the same for Georgia and Mississippi…. As of Friday afternoon, FEMA had placed liaison officers in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee, according to a spokesperson.

In Alabama, as in other affected states, the White House was winning early praise from state, local and Congressional leaders of both parties.

President Obama and the First Lady were also on the ground in Alabama barely 40 hours after the storm struck.

One local resident, whose house was obliterated by a tornado, told the NYT, “It ain’t like Katrina. We’re getting help.”

What’s more, Kevin Drum notes some larger context: “Under Bush Sr., FEMA sucked. Under Clinton, FEMA was rehabilitated and turned into a superstar agency. Under Bush Jr., FEMA sucked again. Under Obama, FEMA’s doing great and responding quickly. I know, I know, we’re not supposed to politicize natural disasters. Not when that politicization makes Republicans look bad, anyway. So I’ll just let you draw your own conclusions from these four data points.”

I don’t imagine we’ll hear much about the Obama administration’s response in the Southeast; the media tends to only find these stories interesting if the government is failing instead of succeeding.

But it’s worth keeping in mind anyway. If it’s important when a federal response falls short, it’s worth appreciating what competent governance is capable of.