The horse's mouth
If you're interested in the perspective of a man who knows something of planning for incidents like Katrina, then you should read what John Donovan has to say:
My thoughts on the subject are informed by the fact that I spent two years as one of those guys in the Army whose job it was to do the generic plans for incident responses (from a DoD perspective, and *ALWAYS* subordinate to FEMA - they're the Big Dog), designing and executing training events to rehearse the plans, and, now and then, implement them, though during that time there was no event ever approaching the magnitude of what's happening in Louisiana right now.
John's points regarding the logistics of quick response, his experience with FEMA, and the complicated National Guard issues are typically insightful. Unfortunately, he doesn't flesh out why he's so fiercely critical of both the Louisiana Governor and the President of the United States. So for what it's worth - coming from a guy with no expertise in this area - here's why I agree with The Armorer.
To some degree, a breakdown of the social fabric is expected in situations like this, and is inevitable. Even if the storm damage hadn't been so severe, when you take most of the population out of a city, you can't expect what's left to function normally. But for the lawlessness to escalate, as it has, those taking advantage of the situation must not expect order to return at any point soon. In other words, the less people believe the law will return, the more likely they are to fall into lawlessness themselves or to become emboldened in their anarchy.
This is where the politicians, by getting out in front of cameras and microphones and laying out exactly what's happening and thereby calming fears, can mitigate the inherent tendency towards chaos. And John's right: the politicians whose job it is to do that simply haven't perfomed as they should have.
As far as the relief efforts themselves are concerned, I wonder how much better they really could have done? There's a practical limit to the amount of suffering you can prevent in situations like this - there will always be some. It will be interesting to see what the professional after-action assessment of those with the expertise to know will be in the end, and what lessons will be learned. Which of those lessons are acted upon, and which are ignored will also be instructive.
Of course, as John says, don't expect much serious reflection or analysis from our all-blame-and-crying-all-the-time media. Too bad. They can do more to shape the public's expectations and preparedness with one prime-time or front-page piece than the whole blogosphere can with a week of non-stop posting.
Update: From the comments, where John has informatively weighed in once again, comes a line that should be tatooed on each and every journalist's and pundit's forehead - including the blogging ones:
And Wonderdog - After Action Reviews are conducted After Action. I've actually got that t-shirt. This is more an IPR, in-progress review or 'hot wash' - which will feed into the AAR.
What has actually happened (right and wrong), who to credit and to blame, and what could have been done better (including managing unrealistic expectations, and investing in infrastructure beyond the scope of disaster relief) won't be clear for awhile.
But if you hate George W. Bush, don't let that stop you from jumping the gun. Any port in a storm, and all that.