Last week I attended the National Emergency Management Association annual forum in Miami. As Hurricane Joaquin formed in the Atlantic, I had a unique opportunity to observe the 50 state emergency management directors’ plan for Joaquin’s potential landfall.

One could easily identify the emergency managers from East Coast states. They were the ones standing in the lobby on their cell phones, briefing their governors on the storm track and preparations underway in the state. They set in motion plans to address a range of potential impacts, including a Hurricane Sandy–like scenario.

Having served as an adviser to President George W. Bush during many disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, I know firsthand how the federal government supports the states during crises (consistent with the Robert T. Stafford Act, the federal disaster law). Now I had a glimpse into the states’ role supporting the local communities’ efforts. Based on what I saw, I can share three significant findings.

All Disasters Are Local

First, I saw parallels between the state-local communication and coordination challenges and the federal-state challenges that I had witnessed from the White House. State directors were asking their operations centers about local actions, and some were struggling to get a clear picture of the activities underway by county and local governments.

Situational awareness is a must for response efforts to be successful. Without it, effective deployment of resources is impossible. During major disasters the federal government may lack the level of situational awareness that the states have. So too is the challenge for the states vis-à-vis the local governments. In the end, all disasters are local.

Seamless Cooperation Without Federal Involvement

Second, emergency managers in states outside the projected impact area were not sitting idly by. Several of them mentioned to me how they were preparing to mobilize assets in support of their fellow emergency managers from states in Joaquin’s path. This was no federal mandate compelling them to do so. Nor was it a system devised by bureaucrats in Washington. Rather, it was made possible by an interstate resource sharing agreement, the Emergency Management Assistance Compact.

Here, the state emergency management directors play a critical role by providing resources to states requiring assistance, without a need for federal involvement. This was seamless cooperation in the time of crisis—a hallmark of effective emergency management.

Individual and Family Preparedness

Third, no matter how much government intervention is warranted, those in the path of a hurricane will likely be on their own during the most critical times. No amount of government support is as important as taking personal actions to care for yourself and your family, friends, and neighbors. (For more on this subject, see my colleague James Carafano’s excellent book “Surviving the End: A Practical Guide for Everyday Americans in the Age of Terror.”)

Local first responders will be overwhelmed during a major disaster, and they must triage their efforts to those unable to help themselves. State and federal governments’ actions are often too unwieldy to be of much help to individuals during a crisis. Imagine trying to fix something with a 1,000-mile-long screwdriver. Thus, individuals and families must be prepared to survive the first 72 hours on their own, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency suggests through its campaign.

Joaquin’s Aftermath

Joaquin ultimately turned out to sea, sparing most of the states that were preparing for its landfall, but massive flooding in South Carolina likely stretched that state’s ability to respond to the disaster. I am certain that many of the state emergency managers who last week were planning for Joaquin instead directed their resources to South Carolina. In this way, the states stand shoulder to shoulder against whatever Mother Nature hurls their way.