Inadequate government planning and the sluggishness of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina raise important questions about the quality of the government’s response to any future cataclysmic terrorist attack.

New Orleans now faces severe unnecessary casualties, stranded refugees in desperate conditions, looting, lawlessness, and general chaos. Could the same mayhem happen after another 9/11-style catastrophic conventional attack, a terrorist incident involving a nuclear or chemical plant, or even a strike with chemical, biological, nuclear or radiological weapons? The answer is yes.

Government planning for the breach of New Orleans’ levees, a scenario that had been widely warned of by experts and publicized, was grossly inadequate. Also, among the many governmental missteps was a late call for evacuation that began only 24 hours before the storm, having insufficient facilities for emergency shelter, and sending about one-third of Louisiana’s National Guard troops to Iraq who had skills, such as engineering, that could have been used in relief efforts. Dozens of the Louisiana Guard’s high-water vehicles, humvees, refuelers, and generators that could be saving lives this week have also been sent abroad.

In addition, the federal response to the hurricane was sluggish, potentially costing many unneeded deaths and resulting in New Orleans’ descent into a primordial state similar to that seen in sci-fi movies after a nuclear war. The most visible evidence of this federal listlessness was President Bush’s delay in cutting short his Texas vacation to return to Washington to coordinate relief operations. According to the Washington Post, Republican Congressman Charles W. Boustany Jr. of Louisiana complained about the speed of the Bush administration’s lethargy in sending help: “I started making calls and trying to impress upon the White House and others that something needed to be done.”

And therein lies the problem with the governmental response to any catastrophic disaster—natural or manmade. States and localities do their own emergency planning but they have become too dependent on the federal government for help in such emergencies. If state and local governments expect that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), residing in the nation’s distant capital, will step in after any disaster, they have incentives to invest less in planning for disasters and developing the capabilities to execute post-disaster operations. Unfortunately, any impairment of such state and local efforts can be tragic because the people who live in the local area, or near it, know best the needs and capabilities there in any emergency. For example, New Orleans, below sea level (which required levees and pumps) and near a large lake, was uniquely vulnerable to a hurricane, and the experts and the public there knew it. Yet state and local planning was clearly impeded by an excessive reliance on the federal man on a white horse galloping to the rescue. For example, Louisiana planners were waiting for federal funds to repair the levees holding back Lake Pontchartrain, which eventually broke and flooded the city.

The same state and local slothfulness is being encouraged in homeland security efforts against terrorist attacks. Federal efforts are displacing and distorting what could be more effective state and local actions. The Department of Homeland Security, of which FEMA is now a part, is doling out federal funds—essentially overlaying a distorted set of federal priorities on the unique emergency management needs of local areas. Also, such federal funding artificially raises the priority among state and local planning agencies of responding to low probability terrorist attacks rather than higher probability natural disasters, such as a hurricane or flood. Furthermore, even Michael Chertoff, the Secretary of Homeland Security, has realized that a substantial portion of federal homeland security funding going to states and localities is shoveled out on the basis of politics, rather than the threat they face from terrorists.

If federal efforts in both disaster relief and homeland security are creating an unhealthy dependency by states and localities and distorting priorities of those on the frontline of disaster response, then, although counterintuitive, cutting the budget for such federal activities might actually improve results. However, after any crisis, such as the New Orleans debacle, federal officials usually claim that they could have done a better job if only they had had sufficient funding. Congress, under political pressure to rectify highly publicized problems, usually ponies up the cash. For example, after 9/11, funding was increased for the very intelligence agencies that failed to see the attack coming. But in disaster relief and homeland security, as in intelligence, failure should not be rewarded. It only leads to more failure.