Many assume that the only viable option for emergency response and recovery from a natural disaster is one that is centrally directed. However, highlighted by the poor response from the federal government and the comparatively effective response from private retailers and the Coast Guard after Hurricane Katrina, this assumption seems to be faulty. Big box retailers such as Wal-Mart were extraordinarily successful in providing help to damaged communities in the days, weeks, and months after the storm. This Policy Comment provides a framework for understanding why private retailers and the Coast Guard mounted an effective response in the Gulf Coast region. Using this framework provides four clear policy recommendations:
1. Give the private sector as much freedom as possible to provide resources for relief and recovery efforts and ensure that its role is officially recognized as part of disaster protocols.
2. Decentralize government relief to local governments and non-governmental organizations and provide that relief in the form of cash or broadly defined vouchers.
3. Move the Coast Guard and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) out of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
4. Reform "Good Samaritan" laws so that private-sector actors are clearly protected when they make good faith efforts to help.
If disaster situations are to be better handled in the future, it is important that institutions are in place so that actors have the appropriate knowledge to act and incentives to behave in ways that benefit others. The framework and recommendations provided in this paper help to provide a good understanding of the appropriate institutions.