Wal-Mart to the Rescue:
Private Enterprise’s Response to Hurricane Katrina
Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics
Affiliated Senior Scholar – Mercatus Center
Department of Economics
St. Lawrence University
Canton, NY 13617
TEL (315) 229 5731
FAX (315) 229 5819
I thank participants at the 2008 Association of Private Enterprise Education meetings in
Las Vegas, especially Josh Hall, for helpful comments. I also thank the Mercatus Center
for their generous support of the original research for this project.
The failures of FEMA and other government agencies during Hurricane Katrina have
been widely acknowledged in both the popular press and academic literature. However,
much less attention has been paid to the successful private sector response during the
storm and its aftermath. Wal-Mart and other private retailers played an extraordinarily
effective role in the disaster relief process. This paper describes aspects of Wal-Mart’s
emergency response system and details their actions during the storm. I argue that Wal-
Mart’s successful response was a product of the incentives, knowledge, and superior
organizational routines that emerge through private ownership and competitive markets.
Because their effectiveness is a function of that institutional context, policy makers
should be wary of trying to import or imitate Wal-Mart’s practices in the very different
institutional context of the public sector, or assuming that better management, more
concern, or additional resources will improve the performance of government agencies.
JEL codes: D2, H5, L3
Keywords: Wal-Mart, Federal Emergency Management Agency, competition, disaster
In the several years that have passed since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf
Coast in the late summer of 2005, it has become increasingly clear to many observers that
various layers of government were at fault for almost every stage of the sequence of
events that turned the passing of a fairly strong hurricane to the east of New Orleans into
a catastrophe. From the special interests at work in constructing the elaborate system of
pumps, levees, and canals that try to make the city’s water go everywhere but where
nature wants it, to problems with the actual canal and levee construction by the Army
Corps of Engineers, to the botched evacuation plans, to the confusion over which levels
of government should respond and how, to the multiple and very visible failures of the
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to the ongoing inability of various
levels of government to rebuild the New Orleans area, government has been, quite
appropriately, the target of a great deal of criticism both by local residents and observers
elsewhere. Unfortunately, as is often the case when existing government agencies fail to
do their assigned task, the response to this government failure has been for many people,
and especially the agencies involved, to argue that those failures were due to a lack of
will, resources, and/or expertise. As numerous public choice economists and economic
historians have documented, this call for more government power is a typical pattern of
response to crisis, with the end result being an above-trend growth in the size and scope
of government, from which a full retreat is never made.1
Lost in this increasingly common narrative of Katrina, however, is any discussion
of the few institutions that did respond effectively in the aftermath of the storm. Not
much has been said about the role played by private enterprise in providing necessary
resources in the immediate aftermath and helping to return a sense of normalcy in the
days and weeks that followed.2 The best example of a successful private sector response
was that of Wal-Mart and other “big box” retailers such as Home Depot. The untold
story of Katrina is the way in which Wal-Mart in particular responded with speed and
effectiveness, often times despite attempts by government relief workers to stymie it, and
in the process saved numerous lives and prevented more looting and chaos than actually
A recent study by the Kennedy School of Government (Rosegrant 2007a)
carefully documented Wal-Mart’s response from a business process perspective. A short
sequel (Rosegrant 2007b) looked at the way in which Wal-Mart has tried to use that
success to change the way disaster response takes place, with mixed results. However,
what neither study, nor any other yet published, does is to offer a “political economy” of
Wal-Mart’s success.3 Wal-Mart’s successful response to Katrina and the failure of
FEMA and other government agencies seem to confirm the more general conclusions of
modern political economy that private sector institutions are better at mobilizing
resources in ways citizens want than are public agencies. To those steeped in the
literature of modern Austrian economics, the new institutional economics, property rights
economics, and public choice theory, the superior performance of Wal-Mart comes as no
surprise. In this paper, I attempt to deploy those theoretical approaches along with recent
work in the economics of organizations to offer a political economy narrative of Wal-
Mart’s successful response to Katrina. Those successes resulted from Wal-Mart being
situated in an institutional environment of competition that both provides the knowledge
and incentives necessary to generate a successful response, and is highly conducive to the
sorts of organizational learning that promotes the development of effective routines that
can be deployed in new applications. After exploring all of these issues, I conclude with
some brief suggestions for improving disaster relief policies.
Wal-Mart to the Rescue
Wal-Mart, as well as other big box retailers, clearly has every reason to protect its
own assets in the case of a natural disaster. Major retailers of all sizes are increasingly
creating their own in-house departments designed to facilitate their response and recovery
to any sort of interruption of their business, whether due to natural disaster, terrorism, or
lower-level problems such as a blackout or a fire. Frequently phrased as questions of
“business continuity,” these offices monitor all sorts of situations at the retailer’s stores.
Wal-Mart has had such an office for a number of years, and each Wal-Mart store has a
very tightly scripted protocol for responding to in-store problems as simple as an injured
customer or associate and for getting that information to the business continuity director’s
office at their headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. In most cases, these offices were
designed to deal with threats to the company’s own property. However, during Katrina
they found themselves broadening their scope of operations by providing needed
resources for the communities in which they operated, especially the hard-hit New
Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeast Louisiana and southwest Mississippi
on August 29, 2005. After forming in the Atlantic and crossing Florida as a relatively
weak Category 1 storm, Katrina strengthened quickly in the Gulf of Mexico, at one point
becoming an extremely powerful Category 5, but weakening to a Category 3 or 4 storm
with winds of about 125 mph when it made landfall on the Louisiana coast on the 29th.
The broad wind field of the storm subjected much of the Gulf Coast to a long period of
hurricane force winds, causing significant damage. In addition, storm surges were
estimated at anywhere from 15 to 20 to 25 feet, but reliable data are not available. The
result of the surge was major flooding all over the Gulf Coast.
In the New Orleans area, the wind damage was also significant, but the surge
caused multiple failures in the city’s levees, which later reports have indicated were
improperly built and/or maintained (Independent Levee Investigating Team 2006). The
resulting flooding left approximately 80% of the city under water, in some places as
much as 8 or 10 or even 20 feet of water. The combination of wind and water damage
left numerous buildings uninhabitable and destroyed supplies and machinery as well as
forcing from their homes those who did not evacuate and causing the death of almost
2000 people. Thousands of residents had to be rescued from their own homes. The
flooding also closed almost all of the major access roads in and out of the city, making it
challenging to get people out or supplies in. Finally, many of those who stayed behind
and were flooded out of their homes ended up at the Superdome or at the city’s
convention center, where supplies were also very limited and conditions were physically
uncomfortable. This was the situation that faced various organizations attempting to
engage in relief and rescue operations.
Wal-Mart arrived in the New Orleans area long before FEMA and had the
supplies that the community needed. Both President Aaron Broussard and Sheriff Harry
Lee of Jefferson Parish in suburban New Orleans lauded Wal-Mart’s work. In an
appearance on Meet the Press, Broussard noted the speed with which Wal-Mart had
brought trucks of water to his area and then quoted Lee as saying, “if [the] American
government would have responded like Wal-Mart has responded, we wouldn't be in this
crisis.”4 Phillip Capitano, mayor of the New Orleans suburb of Kenner, reported that,
“the only lifeline in Kenner was the Wal-Mart stores. We didn’t have looting on a mass
scale because Wal-Mart showed up with food and water so our people could survive.”
Other community leaders in the New Orleans area and cities along the rest of the Gulf
Coast also praised Wal-Mart’s quick and effective response to the storm (Leonard 2005).
Wal-Mart was not alone in providing much needed resources to the stricken areas, as
other big box retailers such as Home Depot and Lowe’s also responded in similar ways.
However, Wal-Mart’s response was the largest and, based on local reports, the most
In the three weeks following landfall, Wal-Mart shipped almost 2,500 truckloads
of merchandise to the affected areas and had drivers and trucks in place to ship relief
supplies to community members and organizations wishing to help
(http://www.walmartfacts.com/FactSheets/8302006_Katrina_Relief.pdf). Home Depot
provided more than 800 truckloads worth of supplies to the hard-hit areas and also used
buses to transport 1,000 employees from other areas into the region (Bond 2005). In
addition to what they sold as a result of quickly re-opening their stores, Wal-Mart also
provided a large amount of free merchandise, including prescription drugs, to those in the
worst-hit areas of the Gulf Coast. For example, several truckloads of free items went to
New Orleans evacuees staying at the Astrodome and the Brown Convention Center in
Houston. Most importantly, Wal-Mart was able to get this assistance to the disaster areas
almost immediately after the storm had passed, in comparison to the days—in some cases
weeks—that residents waited for government agencies to provide relief.
The incentives for private firms to protect their own capital led them to begin
preparing for the storm days before landfall. Three days ahead of landfall on the Gulf,
Home Depot activated its “war room” at its Atlanta headquarters, negotiating with
various vendors to get needed supplies staged to move into the hurricane zone (Ward
2005). Wal-Mart’s response began slightly earlier. The company’s emergency command
center, which is run by Jason Jackson, their Director of Business Continuity, is normally
staffed by six to ten employees who respond to the variety of routine incidents faced by
stores across the country. Faced with larger-scale problems such as a hurricane, “the staff
is joined by senior representatives from each of the company’s functional areas.” With
the possibility of widespread damage to multiple stores in an urban area, such as in the
case of a major hurricane like Katrina, the command center might include as many as 60
employees. The easily expandable structure of Wal-Mart’s emergency response protocols
“drives the ability to be agile and flexible” (Worthen 2005). The company also uses its
own hurricane tracking software and has contracts with private forecasters for the latest
information on storms. By Wednesday, August 24, five days ahead of Katrina’s eventual
landfall on the Gulf Coast, the command center had gone into planning mode, and two
days later, when Katrina struck Florida, the complement of personnel in the command
center was over 50 (Zimmerman and Bauerlein 2005).
Given the frequency of damaging hurricanes along the Gulf Coast and in Florida,
and given the large number of stores Wal-Mart has in that area, the company has a well-
rehearsed process for dealing with threatening storms. Central to that the process is
passing information down from the senior management level to regional, district, and
store managers. The company’s goal is to respond in ways that are “uniform across the
company” (Rosegrant 2007a, p. 3). As it became clear with Katrina’s move into the Gulf
that New Orleans and other large cities were under threat, Wal-Mart invoked those
protocols. They moved emergency supplies such as generators, dry ice, and bottled water
from their current warehouse locations “to designated staging areas so that company
stores would be able to open quickly” (Zimmerman and Bauerlein 2005, p. B1). Those
staging areas were set up just outside the likely worst-hit areas to facilitate a quick
response with minimal danger of damage; for example, a distribution center in
Brookhaven, Mississippi had 45 trucks in place before Katrina’s landfall (Barbaro and
Once the storm itself had passed, the protocol directed district and store managers
to relay information about store conditions back up the chain of command to the
emergency operations center. Katrina had knocked out the company’s computerized
inventory-management system, not to mention much of the local phone infrastructure, so
Wal-Mart associates and managers relied mostly on satellite cell phones that its own loss
prevention teams brought in as early as Tuesday, the day after the storm. Those teams in
New Orleans were supplemented by the regional vice-president, Ronny Hayes, and Deb
Hoover, the regional manager for Wal-Mart’s One-Hour Photo group (Rosegrant 2007a).
With all of its key players in the emergency operations center’s command room receiving
on-the-spot information from two senior managers in New Orleans, Wal-Mart was able to
quickly get a good sense of the dimensions of the disaster and make adjustments to the
supplies its stores and the community would need. For example, when it became clear
that a number of stores had suffered damage and that homes and other businesses were
facing severe flooding, Jason Jackson had his replenishment staff order more mops,
bleach, and similar products into the affected areas. Wal-Mart trucks were rolling into
New Orleans on the day after the storm with the relief supplies noted at the outset.
Aside from having provided supplies to hard-hit areas several days ahead of
FEMA, additional evidence of the effectiveness of the private sector’s response was the
speed with which Wal-Mart re-opened stores closed by the storm. At the peak of the
storm, 126 stores and two distribution centers were closed. Of these closed stores, “more
than half ended up losing power, some were flooded, and 89 . . . reported damage”
(Zimmerman and Bauerlein 2005, p. B1). By 10 days after landfall, all but 15 of its
stores were open and the 15 still closed were ones that had suffered major flooding or
severe structural damage.
Another element of Wal-Mart’s successful response was the great degree of
discretion that the company gave to district and store managers. Despite the perception
many have of Wal-Mart as “top-heavy” and authoritarian, in fact, store managers have
sufficient authority to make decisions based on local information and immediate needs.
As Katrina approached, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott gave a message directly to his senior
staff and told them to pass it down to regional, district, and store managers: “A lot of you
are going to have to make decisions above your level. Make the best decision that you
can with the information that’s available to you at the time, and, above all, do the right
thing” (Rosegrant 2007a, p. 5). In the aftermath of Katrina, the commitment of senior
management to this principle was put to the test multiple times. In several cases, store
managers allowed either emergency personnel or local residents to take store supplies as
needed. A Kenner, Louisiana, employee used a forklift to knock open a warehouse door
to get water for a local retirement home. In Marrero, Louisiana, employees allowed local
police officers to use the store as a headquarters and a sleeping place, as many had lost
their homes. They did not feel the need to get pre-approval from supervisors to take these
actions, and supervisors later praised them for their good on-the-spot decision making.
The Waveland, Mississippi Wal-Mart was severely damaged by the wind and
flooding. Assistant manager Jessica Lewis, who was unable to reach her superiors to get
permission, decided to run a bulldozer through the ruins of her store to scoop up basics
that were not water-damaged, which she then plowed into a pile in the parking lot and
gave away to residents. Lewis also broke into the store’s locked pharmacy to supply
critical drugs to a local hospital. Wal-Mart’s Jason Jackson praised both of her actions:
“What Jessica did is a good example of autonomy” (Rosegrant 2007a, pp. 9-10). Given
the breadth of Wal-Mart’s reach and the variety of local conditions and cultures in which
it operates, it makes sense to allow local managers significant discretion in their day-to-
day operations. That sense of empowerment is particularly useful when unusual local
conditions such as a natural disaster require agility and improvisation.5 Wal-Mart’s life-
saving response during Katrina demonstrates the wisdom of that strategy, and contrasts
with the more rigid and hierarchical structure typical of government agencies such as
Knowledge and Incentives in Economic Theory
Put next to FEMA’s well-documented failures (about which more below), Wal-
Mart’s successes are even more dramatic. Given the generally negative press that Wal-
Mart gets, especially from local politicians who tend to want to make Wal-Mart
responsible for every problem their communities face, the almost universal praise the
company received for their response to Katrina is stunning. It is also no surprise that the
public sector has tried to learn from Wal-Mart’s successes. It is yet again no surprise, for
reasons to be discussed below, that their attempts to do so have largely failed. To
understand Wal-Mart’s successes (and, by implication, FEMA’s failures) and why it is
unlikely that government agencies can replicate those successes without relying much
more extensively on the private sector, we need to explore the political economy of
markets and politics. Specifically, we need to understand the ways in which the
institutional arrangements of the market provide the incentives and knowledge necessary
for the private sector to be in a position to respond in the ways it did during Katrina.
The conventional argument in favor of markets is that private ownership of the
means of production provides the right incentives for owners to produce the kinds of
goods people want and to do so as efficiently as possible. Because the private owners
have their own wealth at stake, they will be responsible stewards of those resources.
More important, private ownership’s ability to capture the future stream of potential
profits in the current net worth of the firm, especially in the form of a stock price, gives
the current owners the incentive to take a long-run perspective on the firm’s performance.
There is little to be gained by running the firm into the ground today because that will
only destroy the value of the firm. Making decisions that properly balance current profit
possibilities with strategies for longer-run success maximize the present value of the firm,
which can always be transferred to future owners through exchange. More narrowly,
private owners are dependent for their profitability on continuing to please their
customers over time, assuming there is rivalry among multiple producers. In such an
environment, firms that alienate their customers by whatever means will quickly be
punished by those customers, as they take their business elsewhere. The gains from
proper stewardship and the risk of losses from customer “exit” suffice to provide the
incentives necessary for efficiency under private ownership.
As strong as these incentives are, they are only half the story at most. Critics of
markets have long wondered whether the same, or better, results might hold without the
need for private ownership if only humans would be less self-interested and thereby not
require “incentives” to engage in rational economic behavior. Marxian calls for
comprehensive economic planning rather than markets, as well as less radical versions of
economic planning that percolated throughout the first few decades of the 20th century,
all argued that although private ownership’s incentive structure did generate some good
results, it came at the cost of “wasteful” competition. If production could be rationally
coordinated ex ante through collective planning processes, we could have the efficiency
of the market, but without the wastes of competition (where the appropriateness of
resource allocation decisions are only known through ex post signals of profit and loss)
and the inequalities of wealth and power that the planners saw resulting from private
ownership. Embedded in the rhetoric of science and rationality, these calls for planning
at least attempted to counter the claim that the incentives of private ownership were
necessary for efficient resource allocation.
The socialist calculation debate of the interwar years offered a second explanation
for the superiority of private ownership that did not rely solely on incentive effects.
Ludwig von Mises (1920) argued that rational resource allocation was impossible without
the aid of genuine market prices because only prices that emerged out of monetary
exchange in a free market could provide the basis for calculating how resources should
best be allocated. Producers would not only need to know the prices of possible outputs
they might create so as to know which were more valuable, they would more crucially
need to know the prices of the various inputs they might use to make those outputs so as
to produce with as least waste as possible. Specifically, where capital goods and labor
have multiple but not infinite uses, we require some way of comparing their value in
those alternative uses. Mises argued that market prices and only market prices provided
this value comparison because such prices all resulted from exchange against the same
good - money. Monetary exchange provided the process by which the economic value of
all goods and services could be reckoned. If planners attempted to allocate resources in
the absence of market prices they would have no way of knowing either ex ante what
capital combinations and possible outputs would appear to be the most rational or ex post
whether the chosen combinations and outputs were in fact rational uses of resources. In
effect, Mises turned the “waste of competition” argument on its head by demonstrating
that in comparative terms planning would be far more wasteful than the market.
Hayek (1940, 1945) extended the Misesian arguments by situating them more
clearly in the context of knowledge. He argued that what the price system does is to
communicate knowledge among economic actors. Prices serve as surrogates for the
combined knowledge of market participants. When we buy and sell, or refrain from
either, we make our knowledge available to others through our contribution, however
small, to the combined effects that push prices up and down. Hayek further added that
much of the relevant knowledge in economic interaction is contextual and/or tacit.
Contextual knowledge refers to what Hayek (1945, p. 80) called the “knowledge of time
and place.” By virtue of their “location” within the ecology of the economy, and often
due to their accumulated experience, producers are able to know their customers and
suppliers in ways that are specific to that context and would not exist were it not for that
context. Re-locating the same producer to a planning bureau would destroy that
contextual knowledge. The related concept of tacit knowledge refers to knowledge held
by both producers and consumers that cannot be easily put into words or numbers. There
is much that we know that we cannot necessarily articulate, such as how to keep our
balance on bicycle. In the market, experience, context, and skill all can lead individuals
to know things about their environment and about how to react to it that cannot be
communicated except through the choices they make in the marketplace. Hayek, and
later writers such as Lavoie (1985), argued that government planners and agencies cannot
get access to this contextual and tacit knowledge, preventing them from duplicating the
success of private owners operating in a genuine market.
Knowledge and Incentives in Wal-Mart’s Response to Katrina
The key roles of knowledge and incentives in explaining the success of Wal-Mart
can best be seen by comparing their performance to the failures of FEMA. FEMA lacks
both the knowledge and incentives necessary to meet the demands of citizens. Not only
does it lack the market signals to guide learning, it faces problematic incentives inside the
political process. Its main task is framed as the “coordination” of other agencies, levels
of government, resources, and private actors. “Coordination” by itself is really a second-
order output, with the results of such coordination being what ultimately matters. Thus
“coordination” as a mission is problematic because, as an output, it is largely
unobservable, therefore it becomes difficult to know how much its “coordination”
activities contributed to the final outcomes. All else constant, how easily could FEMA
know if it was succeeding or failing if “coordination” is its primary mandate? The first
problem plaguing FEMA’s ability to be effective is that it is largely operating in the dark
with respect to whether it is meeting its main task. Without clear feedback, its ability to
learn from its mistakes is compromised, and its ability to blame others for its failings
increases as a result.
By contrast, private sector organizations such as Wal-Mart have a much clearer,
though by no means unambiguous, signal of whether they are getting the job done right
or wrong – changes in prices and profits/losses.6 Admittedly during a crisis such as
Katrina, where a good deal of what Wal-Mart did was to donate relief supplies, market
signals do not as clearly provide immediate feedback about the appropriateness of the
firm’s choices. However, it is those market signals that have helped to inform Wal-Mart
about how best to manage their supply chain and optimize their inventories during
normal business situations. Those lessons can be transferred over to crisis situations with
reasonable assurance that the same techniques will work, and the market signals
generated by the price of their stock in response to their handling of similar situations in
the past provides that assurance. In fact, this is precisely what Wal-Mart did during
Katrina. Their long-honed skills with logistics, informed by years of market signals,
enabled them to be effective. In addition, their strong performance during Katrina will
likely lead to increased profits down the road both through their speed in getting up and
running again and by creating additional customer loyalty through their assistance to the
community. Those increased profits provide knowledge about what to do, and there is no
comparable signal for FEMA.
Beyond the knowledge signals of prices and profits, private sector firms are often
very effective at acquiring knowledge of local conditions that can be extremely useful in
a crisis. At the most basic level, operating in the marketplace demands that firms selling
physical goods or personal services locate where the demand is. For large retailers like
Wal-Mart, this means it has a presence across the United States as its stores generally
track the population distribution of the US (Hicks 2007). However, Wal-Mart is
particularly known for locating in smaller towns and suburban/exurban areas. The
company is also known for getting involved with the local community in a variety of
ways, not to mention often serving as a node of social interaction for both customers and
associates. As a result of this decentralization of resources that is inherent in the market,
firms such as Wal-Mart are very likely to have supplies and human capital near where
disasters occur, and they are also likely to have knowledge of the particular communities
in which they operate as well as connections with community leaders. Because their
employees, both managers and associates, are drawn from the local community and
because they are a daily presence in the lives of residents, they have contextual and tacit
knowledge that can be, and during Katrina was, very useful in a crisis. These
relationships also built mutual trust that can be called upon during a crisis.
By contrast, FEMA does not have offices in each and every small town nor the
knowledge gained by ongoing daily interaction with residents. FEMA employees are
more likely to be based in Washington or a state capital and, as professionals, are more
likely to be relatively new to an area should they be located where a disaster strikes.
They would lack the local knowledge necessary to know where help was needed.7
Because Wal-Mart draws its employees from the same socio-economic groups that were
hit hardest by Katrina, those employees were especially well-positioned to draw upon
contextual, cultural, and tacit knowledge in knowing what needed to be done. The same
is much less likely to be true of FEMA employees. Add to that a more hierarchical and
less decentralized organizational structure and it is not surprising that FEMA was largely
at a loss how to respond, while firms like Wal-Mart were already addressing community
Aside from the limitations on their knowledge, FEMA also does not have the
incentives necessary to respond appropriately. Like all public-sector organizations, they
do not have the incentive of profits and losses to ensure that they meet their mission. As
public choice theory argues and has demonstrated empirically, government agencies are
much more likely to be concerned with augmenting their budgets or pleasing key political
actors as those represent access to additional resources.8 One way of justifying
additional funding is to claim that a lack of such funds explains the agency’s failures.
This is one form of perverse incentives faced by the public sector. Another identified by
Sobel and Leeson (2006a, pp. 6-7) is that government agencies have an incentive to avoid
“Type 1” errors (errors of commission) and therefore are more likely to make “Type 2”
errors (errors of omission). That is, government agencies are likely to take more cautious
and conservative strategies than less cautious ones, even if the net benefit to the less
cautious one is greater. This suggests that FEMA’s tendency to be conservative and rule-
bound is endemic to its very environment and that expecting a level of agility and
flexibility even close to the private sector from it is probably hopeless. The reason for its
greater willingness to tolerate Type 1 errors is that overt, visible errors tend to be
punished more strongly than less visible ones. In addition, errors of omission form a
more plausible basis for arguing that the agency in question needs more power and
resources in order to be able to act. Errors of commission look more clearly like
“mistakes” than a lack of resources.
Private sector firms such as Wal-Mart have much more incentive to undertake
reasonable risks and have no differential incentive to avoid errors of omission. Unlike
government agencies where mistakes of all sorts are costly but getting the job done right
has no specific payoff to decision makers, private sector firms can profit by taking on
risky projects successfully. The reward and punishment systems of the market process
are largely immediate and powerful – if they get it right they profit, if they do not, they
face losses. Because owners themselves will gain economically from success as will
managers in a way bureaucrats do not, the incentive structure of the market leads firms
like Wal-Mart to calculate carefully the prospective net benefits of the options in front of
them. Errors of commission mean absolute losses and errors of omission mean lost profit
opportunities, both of which they have essentially equal incentive to avoid, especially in
the extremely competitive retail sector. Because private sectors firms have owners who
are residual claimants and who therefore gain and lose in step with the firm as a whole,
they face much stronger incentives to meet the needs of customers and the community.
Wal-Mart’s superior performance in Katrina illustrates this nicely.
Certainly part of Wal-Mart’s motivation for engaging the relief effort in a
comprehensive way was the long-term payoff for the profitability and their reputation.
This longer-term perspective is not available for government agencies like FEMA, which
suffers from the short-sightedness endemic to the political process. The planning
horizon of the political process is often as short as the two-year cycle of House elections
and certainly no longer than the four of the presidency.9 Agencies are always under the
constant threat of new leadership, new priorities, reorganization, reassignment, or
outright abolition every two years. FEMA’s history of changing missions and being
bounced around the bureaucracy have made it difficult to engage in long-term planning
as well as making it hard to retain any organizational learning that it might acquire.
Profit-seeking firms are often criticized for supposedly being interested only in
short-term gains, but private ownership and capital and equity markets assure that they
have to take longer-term interests into account. This was clear during Katrina as the big
box stores quite intentionally chose to give up some potential short-run profits in order to
gain in the long run and, in so doing, better serve the community. A Home Depot
executive commented that whatever it loses in profits in the short term are more than
compensated by increased customer loyalty: “If we can be there when a customer needs
us most, we can win that customer for life” (Ward 2005, p. 18). Jason Jackson of Wal-
Mart noted that what ultimately matters for its own financial health is that “we will have
a community to go back to in the end.” Long-run interests also worked against the
possibility of so-called “price-gouging.” As another Home Depot executive put it, “I
can’t think of a quicker way to lose customers than price-gouging” (Langford 2007). In
fact, since 2004, Wal-Mart has had a corporate policy of instituting region-wide price
freezes when hurricanes approach so as to avoid any accusations of price-gouging. They
recognize that their long-run profitability and relationship with the community depends
on skillfully navigating between their narrow short-run financial interest and their larger
reputation in the community.
Operating in the marketplace also gives Wal-Mart an additional advantage over
other organizations involved in the disaster relief process. Relief organizations, whether
governmental or non-profits, do not operate in a competitive market context where they
have to deal directly with their customers/clients on a daily basis, so they have no need to
create a large number of appropriately sized physical locations for any supplies they
might wish to stock. In addition, on a day-to-day basis, they require only a small number
of employees to take care of administrative duties. It is only when disaster strikes that
supplies and workers need to get to the affected areas. Private-sector firms, especially
big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart with numerous locations in highly-populated areas,
will already be present. Attempts by non-profits or government agencies to mimic this
strategy would be seen, rightly, as highly wasteful if they attempt to do so by keeping all
kinds of supplies and employees sitting in multiple warehouses “just in case.” Such
choices would be good examples of the sort of Type 1 error that they would wish to
avoid, as idle workers or supplies that are spoiled, outdated, or just plain sitting there
would be much more visible than the errors of arriving after the fact. For private-sector
firms, their daily operations in the market lead them to have precisely the kinds of
resources needed in place to be converted to disaster relief if the situation arises.
In fact, this is precisely what happened during the 2006 hurricane season.
Rosegrant (2007b, p. 3) reports on FEMA’s attempt to match Wal-Mart’s performance by
stockpiling food and ice in anticipation of a busy 2006 season in the Gulf, without ever
coordinating with private sector firms. When the predicted busy season failed to
materialize, FEMA had to “throw out some 279 truckloads of food worth about $43
million.” Add to that the $85 million worth of unused Katrina supplies they were forced
to give away in June of 2008, and it is unlikely that FEMA will engage in strategies that
risk such visible errors of commission again. By contrast, Wal-Mart always has
resources at the ready because it needs them available for its day-to-day business. With
ongoing markets to serve, rather than discrete events that call for their involvement,
private retailers have the incentive and knowledge to have a constantly replenished stock
of goods on hand that might serve as vital resources in a time of crisis. Giving the private
sector a larger role in disaster relief would eliminate the sort of waste FEMA created in
Competition and Organizational Learning
In addition to knowledge and incentives more narrowly, a broader explanation of
Wal-Mart’s effective response to Katrina is that it operates in an extraordinarily
competitive marketplace and this environment is largely responsible for the way in which
it has developed its resources, formed behaviors and developed routines that combine
those resources and behaviors. Recent work in the strategic management literature has
characterized the firm as a set of resources, a group of activities that the firm engages in,
and a collection of routines that link the resources to the activities (Mathews 2006, p.
75).10 Routines are the various rules, procedures, behavioral patterns and the like that
define how a firm operates. As the name suggests, they grow from repetition, and can
become increasingly effective as the firm evolves. Effective routines allow the firm to
engage in increasingly complex tasks by, essentially, increasing their capabilities,
understood as their potential embodied in their resources. Rather than just seeing the
firm’s resources as a static collection of things, the emphasis on routines provides a
“dynamic capabilities” perspective on the firm’s behavior (Teece, Pisano, and Shuen
1997). The firm is not just a collection of resources, but an institution that can learn to
improve its own operation so as to enhance the productivity of those resources. Such
organizational learning is much more likely to take place in a highly competitive
environment where the organization is subject to constant pressure to improve its short-
run efficiency and long-run capabilities. Organizations under competitive pressure will
also be more entrepreneurial as they will be better able to apply their resources and
routines to novel contexts.
Constant exposure to just this sort of highly competitive environment has led
Wal-Mart to develop a set of organizational practices that are honed to be efficient.
Perhaps more important, the routines they have developed are so tightly matched to their
resources and behaviors that they are very easily deployed in novel situations. The
competitive pressure of the retail market has helped Wal-Mart develop organizational
routines that are efficient at a point in time, while also ensuring that, as an organization, it
can learn from novel situations and incorporate that learning into dynamically efficient
meta-routines. It not only knows how to act effectively, it also knows how to learn how
to act effectively. Its routines effectively embody its capabilities.
Wal-Mart’s successes during Katrina were not only the result of learning from its
previous responses to hurricanes, but also from the everyday demands on its supply chain
and distribution network to get goods to stores that need them. The firm’s whole
inventory-relevant technological infrastructure is geared around the quick movement of
goods to stores and within them.11 Several authors have argued that its innovations in
these areas are a key causal variable in the increased productivity of the US economy in
the late 1990s, and might explain more than half of the productivity gains in the retail
sector from 1987 to 1995 (Johnson 2002; see also Vedder and Cox 2006, pp. 128-134).
Much of this efficiency has been developed through the “learning by doing” that
is associated with the competitive marketplace. Just as individuals learn by being put in
situations of novelty that require the application of existing resources and capabilities to
new activities and where there is a clear metric of success, so do firms learn to develop
routines to bridge their resources and activities in the competitive environment of the
market. Environment matters because even if an organization has clearly defined
activities and a set of resources to bring to bear on them, it will not be likely to develop
the linkages between them if it is not faced with genuine pressure to perform and
innovate. Put differently, the more competitive the environment, the more likely it is that
organizations will behave entrepreneurially, with respect to both the world outside of the
organization and its internal structures. Wal-Mart’s history in a very competitive
industry has enabled it to be alert to the unexpected and able to learn from its mistakes,
both of which are key elements of effective disaster response.12 It has honed just the sort
of agility and responsiveness that disaster experts would love to inculcate in FEMA and
other government agencies. Unfortunately, those characteristics are a product of the
competitive market environment in which Wal-Mart operates, not its organizational
structure or the quality of its leadership per se.
Wal-Mart also demonstrated a willingness to trust its lower-level employees to
take its well-honed routines and apply them to novel situations. As noted at the outset,
Wal-Mart managers and associates are given a fair degree of discretion and during
Katrina were instructed and expected to make decisions “above their level” without prior
approval. How is it possible for Wal-Mart to trust in the quality of those decisions? The
answer is two-fold. First, it has organizational routines that its employees are used to
deploying and know are successful and it also has a demonstrated capacity to learn from
its own behavior. Second, it has a very powerful corporate culture in which its core
philosophical ideas are inculcated in managers and associates from day one.13 The
combination of known organizational routines, a capacity to learn, and a powerful
corporate culture means that lower-level employees can be trusted to apply known
protocols to novel situations in ways that are consistent with the overall vision of the
organization. In giving lower-level employees such autonomy, Wal-Mart made it
possible for them to act on their tacit knowledge. Because tacit knowledge is, by
definition, uncommunicable through ordinary language, acting on it requires that its
possessor have a significant degree of autonomy.14 Had Wal-Mart employees been held
to very tightly scripted protocols, they would not have been able to improvise based on
their tacit and contextual knowledge in the effective ways that they did. Issues of
organizational structure are not independent from those involving how well such
organizations can make use of their employees’ tacit knowledge.
That combination of factors that enabled Wal-Mart to trust its lower-level
employees and for them to use that autonomy so well is most effectively produced in an
environment of competition, which also explains why it was virtually absent from
FEMA.15 Many of the stories of FEMA’s failures involved their inability to “think on
their feet” and trust in the decision-making of lower-level bureaucrats. Wal-Mart’s ability
to respond to the unexpected, deliver to the community, and trust in the choices of its
lower-level employees are the result of it being a profit-seeking firm operating in a highly
competitive marketplace and are nearly impossible to duplicate outside of that context.
The tale of Hurricane Katrina as a massive failure of government at multiple
levels is a widely accepted one, even among people normally not inclined to point the
finger of blame at government. However, the lesson that many draw is that it was a
failure of will, resources and/or expertise by government that created the catastrophe that
was Katrina. What is much less often argued is that these failures were endemic to the
institutional environment of the political process, which is unable to provide the
knowledge and incentives necessary for effective resource allocation in the way that the
private sector can. When placed next to FEMA’s failures, the largely untold but very
clear story of Wal-Mart’s success illustrates the advantages the private sector has in
managing the logistical challenge of resource allocation during a natural disaster.16 The
incentive provided by private ownership and the knowledge provided by market signals
such as prices and profits, all set in an environment of competition, create firms like Wal-
Mart that are able to respond with agility and improvisation to a crisis like Katrina, and to
do so with results far superior to almost all government agencies. A political economy
perspective on Wal-Mart’s heroic performance strongly challenges the belief that with
more will, resources, or expertise, government could ever respond effectively to a major
diaster. The flip side of government’s massive failures during Katrina is the notable
successes of the private sector. Disaster policy makers who ignore the other half of the
story do so not only at their own peril, but also at the peril of millions of Americans who
could be the next victims of another disastrous government disaster relief effort.
1 On the so-called “ratchet effect” on the size of government in the wake of crisis, see
2 The one government agency generally acknowledged to have performed well during
Katrina was the U. S. Coast Guard. One explanation for its success is that it has had both
independence from the political process and a decentralized organizational structure,
much like Wal-Mart. It also had a fairly clear and visible “output” (i.e., saving lives
through rescues). Despite the Coast Guard not having the ability to rely on profit and
loss for knowledge and incentives, it at least could take advantage of local knowledge
through its decentralized organizational structure as well as its long-standing powerful
organizational culture of agility and independence.
3 Sobel and Leeson (2006b) and Shughart (2006) both note the positive role played by
Wal-Mart, but neither makes an exploration of its success a central theme.
4 Meet the Press, September 4, 2005, transcript available online at
5 The story of the Waveland, Mississippi store is of interest for another reason, as it
demonstrates further the improvisational skills of the private sector. The store was so
severely damaged that the structure could not be reopened right away. Realizing that the
community needed the supplies that Wal-Mart had, they improvised by first setting up a
16,000 square foot tent in the parking lot immediately after the storm to at least offer the
basics, including pharmacy services. Later, they did some slight repairs to a portion of
the physical structure that was salvageable and opened a 57,000 square foot “Wal-Mart
Express.” What is of note is that this was an innovation in response to this storm; Wal-
Mart Expresses did not previously exist. The 57,000 square feet were still about a fourth
of the original store. About a year after the storm, the Waveland SuperCenter was fully
renovated and reopened.
6 It is important to note that the quality of the market signals that private enterprise gets
also depends on the stability of the political environment in which it operates. Political
uncertainty can create “signal noise” that makes it more difficult for the individuals,
firms, and communities to interpret market signals correctly, which thereby undermines
their ability to form accurate expectations and plan for the future. Chamlee-Wright
(2007) explores the way in which such politically-generated signal noise has made
recovery from Katrina more difficult than it could have been.
7 Some evidence for this claim can be found in news reports from June 2008 that FEMA
was forced to give away to other government agencies $85 million in supplies intended
for Katrina victims because they did not know there was still a need for them and could
no longer afford to store them. This was despite the fact that FEMA was referring people
looking for housing and supplies to the very local agencies who would have gladly made
use of those supplies had they only known of their existence. FEMA’s lack of local,
contextual knowledge was at the root of this problem. The contrast between FEMA
stocking its warehouses with goods that went unused while Wal-Mart and others were
emptying their warehouses and getting supplies to residents could not make the argument
of this paper more clear.
8 A nice overview of these sorts of public choice considerations is Mitchell and Simmons
(1994). On this particular issue, see pp. 58-62.
9 In a discussion of the lack of incentives facing governments to promote disaster
mitigation rather than just attempting to clean up afterward, Mileti (1999, p. 160) notes
that “the costs of mitigation are immediate while the benefits are uncertain, may not
occur during the tenure of the elected officials, and are not visible (like roads or a new
library).” Sobel and Leeson (2006a) address some of these issues as well.
10 The concept of “routines” comes from the work of Nelson and Winter (1982).
11 Wal-Mart is widely recognized as an innovator in inventory management and has
recently become one of the first large retailers to use Radio Frequency ID to manage
inventory flow at distribution centers and retail stores. One of their goals is to be able to
track in-store sales with a degree of accuracy that prevents them from ever running out of
merchandise on store shelves and adjust the merchandise mix to changes in their
customer base as quickly as possible.
12 Comfort (2005) considers the discovery and correction of error to be one of five critical
criteria for an effective disaster response system and criticizes specifically “the inability
to identify and correct errors as the event evolved” as one of the great failures in the
response to Katrina. In her call for designing systems that avoid that failure, she herself
fails to take into consideration whether structural and institutional features of the public
and non-profit sector might make such learning problematic and, conversely, whether the
different features of the private sector make it more likely. It is worth noting that the
“discovery and correction of error” is precisely the role that Kirzner (1973) assigns to the
entrepreneur and offers reasons why the context of the market is more likely to generate
such entrepreneurship than would other institutional arrangements.
13 Wal-Mart has long been known for its attempts to create a consistent and powerful
corporate culture. It devotes a whole section of its website to issues of corporate culture,
including everything from its “Three Basic Beliefs” to Sam Walton’s “Ten Rules for
Building Business” to the “Wal-Mart Cheer.” The Wal-Mart corporate culture also
includes the “Ten Foot Rule,” which means that associates should approach any customer
within ten feet of them to see if they need help, and their website includes a description of
the “Saturday Morning Meetings,” which take place at corporate headquarters in
Bentonville, Arkansas and provide a forum for explaining and debating core issues facing
the firm as well as celebrating the successes of employees.
14 I thank Josh Hall for this observation.
15 As noted earlier, the U. S. Coast Guard was able to capture some of this combination,
especially the powerful organizational culture, in its long history which enabled it to
respond to Katrina more like Wal-Mart than FEMA.
16 The record may be clear, but it is not well known. In multiple presentations of the
underlying research of this paper to undergraduate audiences, I have asked them at the
end how many had previously heard of Wal-Mart’s positive performance. In most cases,
no hands go up at all. Even in a talk at a college in New Orleans, only two or three of a
class of 25 or so had heard any of this before. The media have been very effective in
covering FEMA’s failures but not nearly as good about Wal-Mart’s successes.
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