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.

via FEMA Response, Once Rare, Is Now Routine and Overused - Room for Debate - NYTimes.com.