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Where Federalism Didn’t Fail


Martha Derthick is professor emeritus of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia and former director of the governmental studies program at the Brookings Institution. She is the author of numerous books on American political institutions and public policy, including Keeping the Compound Republic: Essays on American Federalism (Brookings, 2001).


The governmental response to Hurricane Katrina was not the unalloyed failure that is often portrayed. The response was a mixture of success and failure. Successes occurred when a foundation had been laid for intergovernmental cooperation, as with the largely successful pre-landfall evacuation of Greater New Orleans, the multistate mobilization of the National Guard, and the search and rescue operations of the U.S. Coast Guard and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Postmortems should draw lessons from such successes rather than concentrate entirely on the numerous failures.

It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces—the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment’s notice.

—President George W. Bush, September 15, 2005

I can say with certainty that federalizing emergency response to catastrophic events would be a disaster as bad as Hurricane Katrina. The current system works when everyone understands, accepts, and is willing to fulfill their responsibilities…. the bottom-up approach yields the best results.

—Florida governor Jeb Bush, October 19, 2005