There seems to be a general sense of foreboding and uneasiness across America this summer. Before the season even officially began, we witnessed a significant decline in equity markets from early May until mid-June. The uncovering of a serious if somewhat harebrained plot in Canada back in June also stoked many people's concerns about terrorist attacks. And the beginning of a new hurricane season brought up painful memories of the almost biblical calamity that struck New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast toward the end of last summer. Will we be better prepared this time?
In times of uncertainty and danger, citizens often look to their government to protect them. The executive branch and Congress, as well as a host of departments and agencies like Homeland Security and FEMA, are entrusted with planning for a catastrophe, and then delivering timely aid in the event of the unthinkable.
At least, that's how it's supposed to work. The evidence, however, suggests that we are woefully unprepared for future disasters. Individuals will need to take up the responsibility themselves in planning for a flood, an earthquake, or a category 5 hurricane. In light of recent events, it would be very unwise to count on the government for effective assistance in a crisis.
Could it happen again?
Unfortunately, when it comes to catastrophes, it's not a matter of if, but when. According to CBS News, government officials believe that the Canadian arrests were evidence that the "U.S. will soon be hit again by a terrorist attack." These same officials believe the attack is likely to come before the end of the year.
The likelihood of a catastrophic hurricane is obviously even greater. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, there will be between 13 and 16 named storms this season, four to six of which will be "major." Just recall that Katrina was a category 3 storm when it hit New Orleans. A category 4 or 5 hurricane slamming into Texas or Florida could potentially be worse.
Look, Mom, only 5 Fs!
Despite the apparent inevitability of some kind of catastrophic event in the near future, there seems to be little sense of urgency among the governmental organizations that plan for such events. According to a recent AP story, an analysis conducted by the Department of Homeland Security found that "the vast majority of America's states, cities, and territories still are far from ready for terror attacks, huge natural disasters, or other wide-reaching emergencies." Homeland Security Undersecretary George Foresman noted that $18 billion had been sent by his department to state and local governments, though "very little of it has gone to planning, training, and exercise."
If the state and local governments deserve some of the blame for this lack of preparedness, the federal government quite literally receives low marks as well. Back in December, The New York Times reported that Congress' 9/11 committee issued a "report card" on our preparation for a terror attack that included 5 Fs, 12 Ds, and two incompletes.
A nation hangs its head in shame
This lack of governmental planning -- whether local, state, or federal -- was on display for all of the world to see when Katrina devastated New Orleans last August. According to The Great Deluge, Douglas Brinkley's masterful history of the Katrina tragedy, the bungling on the part of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, FEMA, and Homeland Security was almost beyond belief.
One anecdote in Brinkley's book illustrates FEMA's lack of direction. On the night after the hurricane hit, a FEMA convoy mistakenly believed it wouldn't be able to make it into the downtown area to distribute relief to the victims. Instead, the convoy took a detour and ended up spending the night in a Sam's Club parking lot, far away from those suffering victims who were desperate for relief.
Not every organization failed in its response to this crisis. According to Brinkley, the Coast Guard responded in an organized and professional fashion. And some big companies -- Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) , Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO ) , Marriott (NYSE: MAR ) , and Home Depot (NYSE: HD ) , for instance -- were invaluable in providing relief. One victim even declared that Wal-Mart was "our FEMA."
So what can you do if you can't count on the government to respond efficiently? Well, you could bury your head in the sand and curse the fates when disaster strikes. Or you could plan ahead of time. This month, we're compiling a wealth of information to help you get prepared in case the unthinkable occurs. I recommend two recent articles, one by S.J. Caplan and the other by Dayana Yochim, as excellent places to start.
The motto of "Be Prepared" might seem overly simplistic or even obvious -- or so you'd think. Before Katrina, you might have thought it would be pretty obvious to have an elaborate evacuation plan for a city that has been described as a bowl surrounded by water. Sometimes, common sense ain't so common.
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Fool editor John Reeves does not own any shares in the companies mentioned in this article. Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, and Home Depot areMotley Fool Inside Valuerecommendations. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.