The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has come under a lot of fire for it's response to Hurricane Katrina. Now I'm not an expert, but it seems to me that FEMA's issues were not simply poor management but a fundamental issue with its setup. What I mean is that throughout its history, FEMA's response to disasters has been money. For example, if you're hit by a natural disaster, FEMA gives you money to help get you back on your feet. Yes there's a bit more to it than that, but that is the gist of it. At least that's how it seems to me. If I'm dead wrong, please let me know.
So where's the problem? Well, if a natural disaster affects a couple hundred of fewer people, it's not a problem. There are enough nearby resources that simply writing a check can take care of food, water, and shelter for those affected. However, in Katrina's case, there were thousands affected and no nearby supplies that were sufficient to help. So the problem is that you can't eat, drink, or live in money. What the Katrina victims needed was basic necessities, not money.
So here's my thought: FEMA's problem is that it has money but no infrastructure. It doesn't have food, water, etc. It simply hopes to be able to purchase it for a disaster affected area. So the solution is to create an infrastructure. Create storehouses spread all over the US that are stocked with food, water, water purifiers, blankets, etc. The locations of these storehouses would be linked to disaster prone areas, etc so that in the event of a disaster, the supplies would already be available and close by. Then you can have supplies to people in hours instead of days.
Of course this is an expensive alternative to the current low cost infrastructure of a few people with checkbooks, but there are things that can be done to mitigate the cost. My thought would be to combine it with the welfare system. Once again, instead of giving money/food stamps to people on welfare, you distribute FEMA supplies to local welfare offices (or maybe even grocery stores) and use those supplies for the people who are down on their luck. This way you are cycling through your perishables while keeping up a distribution system that can be accessed in the event of a disaster. This creates a system that is useful today as well as when disaster strikes.