Two hurricanes left two clear lessons for natural disaster relief planning in this nation: There have to be faster ways to get boots into disaster zones, and clearer ways to make sure major funding and supplies get to the right places at the right cost.
The most pressing debate most quickly impacts human lives. The current system includes a protocol that can delay responses -- the requirement that local leaders first request federal help and that governors, not military leaders, activate a state's National Guard. The Coast Guard after Katrina waited for no such niceties since its culture gives more authority to low-ranking members than the Navy, Army and Air Force. There was a prime example of that in New Orleans, where the Coast Guard's orange choppers led the way until National Guard helos also started lifting refugees from rooftops. Pilots of Navy resupply helicopters, on the other hand, were reprimanded for "diverting from their assigned mission" for rescues instead of returning empty to base. The Coast Guard's "help first, get permission later" culture saved lives, and is ideally suited for early-stage disaster relief. That's a model to build on. Activation policies, especially when disasters hit a region, can be streamlined. Congress must ensure that the military still works with local leaders and does not simply assume martial law control.
After lifesaving gives way to life-rebuilding, there's the cost to taxpayers of federal relief. The current standard of no-bid contracting in "urgent and compelling circumstances" is reasonable, but there should be more cost-previewed contracts on a list for such emergencies. That would be less questionable than reactive no-bids and help keep windstorms from becoming windfalls for connected corporations.