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For Disaster Management, Louisiana Looks to Business

After Katrina, less reliance on government

As Hurricane Gustav bore down on Louisiana in 2008, state officials wanted to avoid the food shortages that had followed Katrina three years earlier. So they bought thousands of MREs—“meals ready to eat,” foil-bagged military rations available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency—for about $8 each. They also called local caterers and restaurants to see whether those businesses might help feed evacuees. The food vendors, it turned out, were able to serve fresh, hot meals of jambalaya and red beans and rice at half the price of FEMA’s rations. “We probably saved close to half a million dollars during that one event by tapping into the private sector,” says Pat Santos, who oversees disaster relief in Louisiana.

After enduring calamities such as Katrina, Gustav, and the Gulf oil spill, Louisiana has discovered that businesses from corner gas stations to big-box stores can help improve the state’s response to disasters. Officials there and at the federal level recognize that companies are often better equipped than government to help. When Hurricane Irene approached the East Coast in late August, retailers extended store hours and shipped extra generators, bottled water, and other supplies to the region. “The private sector owns an enormous amount of infrastructure that the government depends on,” says Joseph Booth, a former state police official who now directs the Stephenson Disaster Management Institute at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.