When it came time to survey the devastation of Hurricane Katrina five years ago, President George W. Bush opted to watch from the air. The move was either meant to avoid causing a circus as he was shuffled from one tragic scene to the next, or it was to avoid putting the president in the same camera frame as a corpse floating down a flooded street.

But the shot of Bush, his arms crossed as he leaned against the plane window looking down on the damage, supported the broader narrative of a federal government at arm’s length from the kind of worst-case scenarios that local communities like Charleston have to plan for every year.

These days, there’s an increased awareness that aid has to move faster — that the need for additional resources like manpower and money should be anticipated before the storm, not days later. But a host of necessary reforms that have been highlighted by Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and other municipal leaders show that Uncle Sam has yet to land.

In May, Riley addressed members of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, explaining that the slow federal response to Katrina still worries communities up and down the East Coast who see the potential for an economic disaster in every storm that forms off of Africa’s shoreline. But the oil rig disaster that crippled Gulf Coast communities for months this summer sidelined reform efforts and may very well redefine what we consider a national disaster.

Riley’s comments focused on the financial crisis that follows any catastrophe — the costs skyrocket for emergency needs, like extra staff, debris removal, and rebuilding, just as the local economy grinds to a halt. Residents aren’t home to pay their property taxes, and businesses aren’t making money to pay their share, either. Commerce and most residents will eventually return, but the rebuilding of parks, schools, and other public sites is delayed because every dollar that would have gone into those projects went toward recovery efforts.

Last week, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) announced that $1.8 billion in federal aid was heading to schools in New Orleans destroyed or damaged by the storm. Five years is a long time for anyone, but in education terms, the middle school cheerleader who was singing along to Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” in 2005 is getting cozy in her college dorm right now to Ke$ha.

As the chair of the Senate’s Disaster Response Subcommittee, Landrieu has been critical of the slow federal response to New Orleans’ needs and the lack of progress on legislative reforms. However, she celebrated the school funding as “a great victory for a smarter recovery.”

“The lump sum approach is a much wiser investment of taxpayer dollars and should serve as a model for the right way to rebuild communities following a major disaster,” she said.

Hypothetical Hugos

The S.C. Emergency Management division estimates that a storm like Hurricane Hugo would destroy 21,000 homes and cost $8 billion in damage, and that’s with the worst of the storm going through rural McClellanville. A direct hit on Charleston would be much worse.

According to state and county estimates, a Category 5 storm running straight through Charleston County would impact nearly 280,000 residents, 106,000 homes, and more than 1,500 businesses, with a collected value of more than $23 billion.

Most every home downtown would require at least moderate repair — one of every four homes would be completely destroyed and another 25 percent would be considered “severely damaged.” East of the Cooper, more than 15,000 homes would be gone, along with an additional 8,000 on James Island and Folly Beach. Seven hospitals, nine media outlets, 31 fire stations, and 11 law enforcement centers would see some form of flooding damage due to the storm surge, including major damage to facilities on barrier islands and on the peninsula.

A 2008 statewide recovery plan warned that “A catastrophic emergency or disaster will overwhelm the capabilities of the state and its political subdivisions to provide prompt and effective relief and recovery measures.”

Estimates for Charleston County suggest there would be 3.2 million tons of tree debris alone, as well as 2.9 million tons of brick, wood, concrete, and steel debris. According to the state plan, streets would be impassable and medical supplies would be hard to find, stalling emergency relief efforts while numerous fires break out in both urban and rural areas.

The county would already have GIS and storm surge projections to offer damage estimates. Immediately after the storm, emergency officials would forward that data to the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), along with a letter to the president requesting federal aid. The looming question is when that aid would show up.

Red Tape

Riley spoke in front of Senate leaders in May, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, the ranking Republican on the Disaster Recovery Subcommittee.

The mayor referenced the lessons learned in response to Katrina; former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was another leader on the Conference of Mayors’ disaster reform team. Riley also took went back to the storm that reshaped modern Charleston in 1989.

After Hugo hit, Charleston was on its own to address recovery needs with limited resources. “Instead of having equipment and supplies at the ready to come in after the winds subsided, we had to wrangle with red tape and say, ‘Mother, may I?’ for every step we tried to take,” Riley said. “We were told that we would have to do an assessment before any assistance or relief was provided.”

Some aspects of emergency response have been resolved, but the matter Riley focused on in his remarks was the need for the type of federal aid that Landrieu announced last week — just a little bit sooner than five years after a disaster.

“Our residents look to us for speedy action and for reassurance that their lives and communities will quickly return to normal,” Riley said, noting the federal resources that would make that job easier are often tied up as they’re doled to the state, which is likely grappling with its own disaster response. “We are left in the impossible position of being responsible to our constituents without having the authority or resources to adequately respond to their needs.”

On-Time Aid

Riley’s recommendations for change focus on the time it takes to shuffle paperwork, money, manpower, and resources from Washington to federal regional offices in Atlanta, the S.C. Statehouse, the county, and finally to a desperate municipality.

A major problem recognized after Katrina is the difference between a storm event and a catastrophic disaster. One piece at a time, federal agencies have provided additional resources to address damages in the Gulf, but each step has required some sort of legislative or bureaucratic special exception that has delayed progress. A “catastrophic” designation would allow the president or high-level officials at FEMA and other agencies to make quick command decisions to avoid delays.

Larger cities and urban counties like Charleston already receive direct federal aid through the Department of Housing and Urban Development for community improvement grants. Riley says the same system could be used for hazard mitigation grants to get the money to communities already adhering to federal standards for bidding contracts and overseeing construction.

Reform would also include increasing the $5 million cap on the Community Disaster Loan program. Used to cushion local coffers until traditional tax revenues return, the loans can be insufficient in a Katrina-level disaster. Again, additional state and federal money can be made available, but it’s a lengthy process that only further delays recovery.

Riley also called for increased and expedited support for neighboring cities and counties hosting the homeless residents of storm-ravaged communities. It was a critical factor after Katrina, when New Orleans’ residents were shuttled throughout the Southeast. Under existing law, local governments are only reimbursed for overtime worked to assist storm victims but not for the time employees might sacrifice from their regular work week. The municipalities are also often not reimbursed for the loss of revenue when facilities like convention centers have to be converted into shelters.

These expenses, Riley said, “Are borne by its citizens, thus putting the city in the position of underwriting the costs for people who live on the coast.”

Slick Stalling

Last week, the Disaster Recovery Subcommittee traveled to coastal Louisiana for a public hearing on the federal response to Katrina over the last five years.

When Mayor Riley testified in May, there was momentum behind the proposed reforms. A little more than a week after the hearings, Landrieu introduced a bill to address most of Riley’s concerns.

But there was another tragedy reshaping the economy of the Gulf Coast. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon rig started leaking in late April and wasn’t stopped until last month. The man-made catastrophe captured the nation’s attention and put reforms for natural disasters on the back burner.

On the Gulf, local officials, nonprofit agencies, and Facebook supporters (of course) called for the same type of disaster designation and subsequent federal aid that the region received after Katrina.

The hope was that Washington would provide sweeping assistance and worry about getting the money back from BP later. Orange Beach, Ala., Mayor Tony Kennon told Mobile’s Press-Register that he wanted the government to get involved, but he recognized it was a “be careful what you ask for kind of thing.”

Federal guidelines limit the government’s disaster response to the kind of weather and earthquake incidents where there isn’t a culprit, the kind of thing that can best be described as a pissed-off Mother Nature or an angry god. But like Katrina, the federal government launched special one-time programs for impacted residents and businesses, including low-interest loans through the Small Business Administration.

At the subcommittee hearing last week, Landrieu gave a laundry list of positive steps the federal government has taken to help the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. But she noted federal standards remain largely unchanged, limiting “its ability to support recovery from a catastrophic disaster.” Washington has yet to come up with a better solution putting up trailer cities, and, five years later, there are still damaged police and fire stations awaiting promised federal dollars.

It doesn’t really matter whether the president steps off a plane days after the next storm hits Charleston. It’s whether or not he brings the resources the city needs to rebuild and recover.