Kenneth Feinberg specializes in tragedy.
In the wake of 9/11, the attorney general asked him to manage the Victim Compensation Fund set up by Congress. He chose who would get compensated, and how much money they would get. His firm did all the work pro bono. Feinberg did not bill anyone.
That alone was a remarkable service. He did so well, in fact, that after the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech, he was called in again.
“You don't say no to the attorney general of the United States or the president of Virginia Tech,” he told Washingtonian magazine in 2008. “Despite the personal impact on me emotionally, I'd do it again. So would millions of Americans. If you can make some small contribution to the healing process, that justifies your involvement in coping with tragedies.”
And now, another tragedy. In response to the Gulf oil spill, BP set up a $20 billion compensation fund. The government-appointed administrator is Ken Feinberg.
This appointment may be the best move that Washington has made since Deepwater Horizon exploded in April. This son of a tire salesman is a high-powered lawyer who understands how tragedy affects common people.
This experience is crucial, because Feinberg's work could make or break many small businesses. These operations rarely have a disaster plan, even though about one-third of the small businesses in America at one time or another will be adversely affected by a disaster.
Plus, a study by the Department of Labor found that 40 percent of businesses that close after a disaster never reopen. If small businesses close for even a few weeks, they are usually goners. Feinberg understands how important it will be to compensate people quickly if there is any hope of keeping the economies of Gulf communities from collapsing.
Likewise, he understands that it is important that more information on the compensation process be made available to state and local governments so they have more visibility on what is happening in their communities. From the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness to local parish presidents, there is a common complaint: They say they need to know more than just the number of claims and how many checks are being written. Feinberg has promised to address the problem.
Feinberg's commitment and energy sharply contrast almost every other aspect of the federal response. Responding swiftly should have been a primary concern in this disaster.
It would, of course, have been far better to clean up the oil as soon as it came out of the well, or at least while it was still in the Gulf. Barring that, the government could have done more to keep the oil from making landfall.
Yet the feds have taken only in gradual, halting stutter-steps instead of quickly mobilizing response assets.
There is a lesson here. This White House seems very comfortable leading when it wants to lead. When it comes to compensating people — “giving” them something or telling them that they are entitled to something, this administration is in a league of its own.
Yet when it comes to empowering people to act — to responding to a crisis — the president appears far more uncertain.
In the Gulf, the White House has outsourced disaster response to the Coast Guard and left the underpowered service to struggle with an oversize mission with only minimal help from a plethora of federal agencies. Meanwhile, Obama seems focused on the aspects of the challenge that don't require him to leave his comfort zone.
As interest in the Gulf wanes, the lesson of what happened here shouldn't be forgotten. When disaster strikes, the nation never knows what hand it will be dealt.
It may be saddled with inept mayors and indecisive governors, or it may have a president who isn't happy in the center of the storm. For that reason it's a good idea to make sure the national response system isn't overly bureaucratic and overly centralized.
The bigger the problem, the more that empowering the people closest to the problem makes sense. That's far better than having to rely on people like Feinberg to figure out how to compensate them after they have lost everything.
Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation ( heritage.org)