Nobody better tell the NYT editorial board about the Waffle House Index

As flood waters were pouring into every low point in New York City Monday night, the New York Times took the opportunity to knock Mitt Romney for remarks he made during the Republican primary about federal disaster assistance in an editorial entitled, “A Big Storm Requires Big Government.” In doing so, the Grey Lady followed in the footsteps of Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo. From the editorial:

Most Americans have never heard of the National Response Coordination Center, but they’re lucky it exists on days of lethal winds and flood tides. The center is the war room of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where officials gather to decide where rescuers should go, where drinking water should be shipped, and how to assist hospitals that have to evacuate.

Disaster coordination is one of the most vital functions of “big government,” which is why Mitt Romney wants to eliminate it. At a Republican primary debate last year, Mr. Romney was asked whether emergency management was a function that should be returned to the states. He not only agreed, he went further.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.” Mr. Romney not only believes that states acting independently can handle the response to a vast East Coast storm better than Washington, but that profit-making companies can do an even better job. He said it was “immoral” for the federal government to do all these things if it means increasing the debt.

Here’s the whole exchange, which Jordan Weissman of The Atlantic headlines, “No, Mitt Romney doesn’t really want to kill off FEMA.” Instead, it’s a nonspecific pep talk for local control, when possible, paired with a warning about the dangers of spending future generations into oblivion.

The NYT editorial is opportunistic and lazy. It asserts Romney’s notion is “absurd” without actually explaining why. It asserts that Republicans “don’t like the idea of free aid for poor people, or they think people should pay for their bad decisions.” Yes, that’s why Republicans, conservatives and evangelical Christians famously steer clear of Red Cross donations, volunteering at church drives for victims, and picking up debris for neighbors. You never see any of that because we “don’t like the idea of free aid for poor people” in the wake of a natural disaster. This is what they think of half the country. The editorial also calls sequestration cuts “Republican-instigated,” a claim which Politifact declared “Mostly False.”

The logical conclusion of the editorial, read with more charity than they afforded Romney, is that FEMA and federal disaster relief run perfectly well and that no one should propose changes to their structures unless that change is to give them more money. The NYT scoffed at the idea that “profit-making companies can do an even better job” and discounted the contributions of state and local governments entirely. As too many do with government functions, they assume spending more money means FEMA is doing more good. Of course, more money could just mean more poison trailers and more fraud, but we’ll all feel good that the agency is spending more money, I suppose.

Perhaps the New York Times editorial writers should read their own newspaper, as it updated us on the lingering weaknesses of FEMA Monday—a GAO report found inconsistencies in how it trains and hires disaster assistance employees— and offered this nugget about FEMA director Craig Fugate’s plans:

Since [Katrina] it has tried to strengthen its ability to respond to a major disaster, both by rebuilding its own supply management system and personnel, and by fostering stronger ties to outside parties, including the Defense Department and even the owners of big box retail stores, which Mr. Fugate said might be turned to as a backup for emergency supplies.

This is the same Fugate, praised for leading FEMA competently through Midwestern tornadoes and hurricanes alike, who coined the term “Waffle House Index”* to describe the metric FEMA now uses to determine where its resources are needed most. Here’s how it works. The Waffle House chain has a huge number of stores located in the Southeast and Midwest in areas that frequently see devastating storms. As such, it has created an enviable corporate culture so attuned to disaster recovery that Fugate knows, “If you get there and the Waffle House is closed? That’s really bad. That’s where you go to work.”

The Wall Street Journal did a great story on Waffle House’s disaster prep in 2011, which just made me an even bigger fan of Waffle House and the free market:

Waffle House Inc. has 1,600 restaurants stretching from the mid-Atlantic to Florida and across the Gulf Coast, leaving it particularly vulnerable to hurricanes. Other businesses, of course, strive to reopen as quickly as possible after disasters. But the Waffle House, which spends almost nothing on advertising, has built a marketing strategy around the goodwill gained from being open when customers are most desperate…

The company fully embraced its post-disaster business strategy after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Seven of its restaurants were destroyed and 100 more shut down, but those that reopened quickly were swamped with customers.

The company decided to beef up its crisis-management processes. Senior executives developed a manual for opening after a disaster, bulked up on portable generators, bought a mobile command center and gave employees key fobs with emergency contacts.

The restaurant chain has a guide for serving limited menus if there is “gas but no electricity, or a generator but no ice,” which allows the company to keep the supply chain fine-tuned and perishables headed where they’re used, not wasted. It becomes, literally, a port in a storm for many displaced families. Waffle House executives say the endeavor is likely not a profit-making venture, but for a company that doesn’t advertise, its value in community goodwill is priceless.

Situation Room

The Waffle House Situation Room on Monday.

This private company—the kind the NYT editorial board thinks it’s an “absurd” notion to give a bigger part in FEMA response— is already working so fast and so well in disaster response that it is a guidepost for the necessarily slower and clumsier federal government. It is already doing a better, faster job than the federal government, which is why Fugate can use it as a gauge. And, they’re not the only ones. Profit-making entities like Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, and Home Depot have all managed to create admirable disaster preparation plans, which Fugate himself has deemed worthy of including as part of the federal government’s disaster plan. They do it because it’s good for the community, but they are also able to do it because of the efficiencies of the market, the practice they’ve gained by competing with other chains, all the vital information embedded in price signals, the incentive to get the community back on its shopping feet, and intimate local knowledge of the areas they serve— all things the federal government lacks. And, yes, they do it because there’s plenty of brand loyalty in it for any company that can provide a hot meal or plywood in an emergency. It’s amazing, not absurd.

To its credit, the NYT is hosting a debate where others are engaging the ideas the editorial board refused to.

Jim Pethokoukis of AEI weighs in:

A superstorm requires supersmart government. But making wise decisions from a distance is hard. Economists call this the problem of local knowledge. The information needed for making rational plans is distributed among many actors, and it is extremely difficult for a far-off, centralized authority to access it. The devil really is in the details. (This is why the price system, which aggregates all that dispersed insight, is more economically efficient than a command-and-control system.)

So emergency and disaster response should be, as much as possible, pushed down to the state and local level. A national effort should be reserved for truly catastrophic events. Indeed this preference for “local first, national second” can be found in the legislation authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The number of federal emergencies has soared, stretching capabilities. Increasingly state and private resources are overlooked.

But just the opposite has been happening in recent decades. There were, according to a Heritage Foundation analysis, 28 FEMA declarations a year during the Reagan administration, 44 during Bush I, 90 during Clinton, 130 during Bush II, and 153 so far during Obama’s term. The result is federal emergency response effort stretched thin in its capabilities to deal with major disasters.

He also notes the heroic performance of Wal-Mart after Hurricane Katrina, from which the federal government could have taken plenty of lessons (and it sounds like Fugate has):

Wal-Mart arrived in the New Orleans area long before FEMA and had the supplies that the community needed.

Phillip Capitano, mayor of the New Orleans suburb of Kenner, reported that, “the only lifeline in Kenner was the Wal-Mart stores.

In addition to what they sold as a result of quickly re-opening their stores, Wal-Mart also provided a large amount of free merchandise, including prescription drugs, to those in the worst-hit areas of the Gulf Coast.

The folks on the NYT editorial board are so ideologically blinded that they’re now knocking private donations to disasters, in general, as a way to bash Mitt Romney, but maybe they’ll listen to the president himself, who noted the federal government’s limitations during his remarks on Sandy, given at the Red Cross, mind you:

“My message to the governors as well as to the mayors is anything they need, we will be there, and we will cut through red tape,” Mr. Obama said. “We are not going to get bogged down with a lot of rules.”

A reasonable and reasonably intelligent person might conclude that if the federal government’s first act must be to remove the barriers its regulations place on disaster recovery, then it should perhaps focus on getting out of the way first while allowing more flexible, local entities to get to work on the ground. This already happens, to a great extent, because it must. Charities like Red Cross and Samaritan’s Purse come in first, partnering with local churches, businesses, and government, later backed up with resources and employees from the federal government.

Disaster recovery requires nimble decision-making, flexibility, and money. The federal government has only one of those, and arguably none of them if you check out the debt. It is harmful to argue, as the NYT does, for a bigger and ever-less flexible system, ruled entirely by leaders in Washington and to poison the idea of states and private companies taking on larger roles. A federal budget line should not be the measure of success in disaster recovery (and if it is, maybe the paper should take that up with President Obama). If Waffle House spent millions yet served only 16 meals in stormstruck areas, we would never praise its efforts. Perhaps comparable standards are in order for the federal government.

Romney’s comments allow for any number of combinations in the Tetris game of private-public partnerships shown to actually help victims quickly. The NYT editorial attempts to make politically toxic any discussion of innovation in a field where lives and livelihoods depend on it. Which one is extreme?

We often hear from the president and his allies that “we’re all in this together.” America agrees, but to paint the federal government alone as the one true path to helping our neighbors ignores reality, eschews innovation, and ultimately hurts those we’re trying to help.

*The Waffle House Index is, of course, less useful in this particular storm because of its lack of franchises in the Northeast, but it is being used as a gauge in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

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