A ‘high point’ in government disaster response

A ‘HIGH POINT’ IN GOVERNMENT DISASTER RESPONSE…. As of about a decade ago, there was an assumption among much of the public that the government was pretty good at disaster response. By 2000, the Clinton administration’s FEMA was considered a model government agency, able to act quickly and effectively to almost any scenario.

A decade later, the public’s confidence has been badly rattled, and for good reason — among its many problems, the Bush administration’s mismanagement on this front became a national embarrassment. It wasn’t long before it became a template for those hoping to discredit the efficacy of government itself — if the government can’t even respond ably to a hurricane in New Orleans, how can we expect it to [fill in the blank]?

With that in mind, Marc Ambinder Joshua Green raised an important yesterday that often goes overlooked: the government’s disaster response efforts have already vastly improved over the last 16 months.

An eternal fact of Washington is that government gets much more attention when it performs badly than when it performs well. As an illustration of the former, recall the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. To illustrate the latter, consider how the media is covering government right now. By my count at least three major natural disasters have occurred in recent weeks: the Nashville flooding, the deadly Oklahoma tornadoes, and the BP oil spill (admittedly not “natural” but threatening to be a major environmental disaster). Let’s throw in an attempted terrorist attack in Times Square, too. On every front, government has performed ably — and often better than ably. And yet it’s understating things considerably to say this success has not been widely recognized.

It should be recognized, though, because when it comes to government disaster response, the Bush years marked a low point and right now we’re experiencing a high point.

That may seem like cold comfort to those along the Gulf Coast — there’s only so much the government can do about the BP oil spill disaster, and at this point, the crisis is getting considerably worse — but Green’s observation is nevertheless an accurate one. Obama was intent on quickly improving the federal government’s ability to respond to these kinds of disasters, and those efforts have been successful.

Green noted several recent examples from the last month, but let’s not overlook the administration won (and deserved) plaudits for its handling of the H1N1 epidemic, and the administration’s response to the devastating earthquake in Haiti has not only been exemplary, but it’s even exceeded expectations.

Paul Waldman noted recently, “[I]t seems that the better job the Obama administration does with this [BP oil spill] and future disasters, the less it will matter in the public’s perception of what government is capable of.”

I hope that’s right, because the debate in recent years has gone in a ridiculous direction. At issue has never been whether the government can effectively respond to disasters, but rather, the difference between an administration that guts response agencies and promotes incompetent lackeys, and one that takes these issues seriously.