03/28/2013 04:22 pm ET Updated May 28, 2013

When Disaster Relief Is No Relief

Why FEMA and the Federal Government Need To Let Private Enterprise Do Their Part

When the six month anniversary of Hurricane Sandy arrives, it will be marked by homes that have yet to be rebuilt, possessions that have yet to be replaced, and lives that have yet to be mended. A look back to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 still finds people suffering from its devastation over seven years ago. Why do the same problems continue to plague our efforts? Why have we failed to learn any lessons from the largest natural disaster in U.S. history?

In extensive field research done with my colleague Stacy Baker at the University of Wyoming, we explored a tornado out West that left a small rural Wyoming town in ruins in the mid-2000s. Many of their homes were completely destroyed and most of their possessions were scattered throughout the community. What was once their private lives became public, and few people emerged unscathed. Various federal government agencies and a few nonprofit organizations immediately came to the rescue, but the situation did not markedly change until the private sector returned.

Our research chronicles the attempt to return to normalcy and follows the emotional and behavioral reactions of people whose lives were turned upside down -- as well as people who entered the community to help in its restoration.

Once everyone is accounted for and the initial shock wears off, the community naturally moves from a focus on group survival to a concentration on individual wants and needs. This change reveals that the nature of healing encompasses both the group dynamic of the town and the individual struggle to achieve normalcy evolve over time.

Unfortunately, the typical process of restoration makes it difficult for individual healing to take place. FEMA and other such governmental agencies at the state or local levels are guided by an ethic that treats everyone the same, ignoring what they previously owned or their status within the community pecking-order. Consider that each person in need gets the same trailer, the same blankets, the same clothing, the same food, the same everything. It seems like a very reasonable strategy to treat everyone equally (i.e., similarly), but does this method deny our individuality? When such goods are distributed through the marketplace, it is equity (i.e., differently but fairly) that dominates the exchange, with individuals able to acquire goods and services according to their desires and resources.

There are likely very few ways that government can do more than supply the basic necessities so that people move from the brink of disaster to at least having enough to survive. And people must ultimately rely on insurance and other private companies to make us close to whole when we lose nearly everything.

But is that the best we can do? Get a few subsistence commodities and wait to see what our government agencies give us, if anything? Such a means of restitution ignores the basic order of any society, especially in individualistic cultures such as the U.S.

Another way is to rely on the private sector to come to our rescue. Our research demonstrates that only the marketplace is equipped to support our individual needs. As an alternative, what if the government concentrates on helping citizens move from disaster to a baseline of goods and services that removes survival fears but then encourages private sector businesses to enter the scene as soon as possible? In such cases, the government could call on businesses to help impacted persons regain their financial wherewithal right away, supporting their ability to replace products of idiosyncratic importance through more normal purchasing channels. A return to normal means a return to typical marketplace transactions.

Mobile units from retailers like WalMart, Kmart, Sears, McDonalds, and others could enter the community and setup a temporary marketplace that would almost immediately support the needs of those affected by a disaster as they move from survival mode to regaining their footing as they rebuild their lives. Rapid replacement of the former set of retailers and other components of the private market such as banks are as important as resurrecting homes and office buildings. These temporary players would need to come and go as demand waxes and wanes and the former set of retailers and other providers are also restored.

In the final analysis, our research shows that the federal government doesn't do a bad job, but that the job they are trying to accomplish is beyond their abilities to respond on a timely basis.

Most people do not want to rely on government intervention into their lives for very long, and the only way to fully recover is to return to some semblance of their former selves. The private market is capable of meeting such demands, and disaster recovery would come a long way if it facilitated rather than replaced the natural order of things as soon as possible. Why not allow each entity to serve the purpose it was designed to accomplish? There is no better way.