Federalism and Domestic Disasters: Promoting a Balanced Approach


Publication Date: January 2006

Publisher: Hudson Institute

Author(s): Richard Weitz

Research Area: Government; Social conditions

Type: Report


In response to the widespread devastation wrought by hurricane Katrina, many people have called for strengthening the federal government’s involvement in responding to catastrophic emergencies. Although enhancements to federal capabilities in this area are necessary, such steps should not obscure the principle that any homeland security system must be national, not just federal. A truly robust U.S. response to domestic disasters will require a strong contribution by state and local governments, the private sector, voluntary associations, community-based groups, and individuals to prevent and manage terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

The federal government can assist in many areas, but its programs should aim to supplement, not supplant, national homeland security efforts. Homeland security against natural and manmade emergencies must be seen as the common responsibility of all Americans. State, local, and private entities manage almost all critical infrastructure in the United States. They also conduct most national preparedness efforts, including early detection of threats. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita highlighted the vital role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), private-sector initiatives, and individual civic deeds in saving people during emergencies.

Hurricane Katrina alone engendered the single largest charitable response to a domestic disaster in American history. Louisiana residents affected by these two storms generally rated the assistance provided by private sources such as non-profit, community, and faith-based organizations substantially higher than that supplied by federal, state, and local governments.

The first section of this paper reviews the fundamental constitutional principles that govern the American response to domestic disasters. It also underscores the importance of NGOs, private businesses, and individual citizens in incident management.

The next section analyzes the complementary roles of public and private entities in preventing and responding to disasters in a range of areas, from major terrorist incidents to public health emergencies to preventing waste, fraud, and abuse.

The final section offers recommendations to optimize the balance among the various elements that contribute to U.S. security. These proposals encompass strengthening public-private partnerships, restructuring national preparedness programs, enhancing informationsharing and asset visibility, improving cooperative law enforcement, restructuring the homeland security advisory system, establishing a regional structure within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and managing catastrophic emergencies better.