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Analysing a Mega-Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

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The response to Hurricane Katrina (2005) has been widely described as a disaster in itself. Politicians, media, academics, survivors and the public at large have slammed the federal, state and local response to this mega-disaster. If we are to believe the critics, the response was late, ineffective, politically charged, and even influenced by racist motives. But is this criticism true? Was the response really that poor? This chapter offers a framework for the analysis and assessment of a large-scale response to a mega-disaster, which is then applied to the Katrina response (with an emphasis on New Orleans). The chapter identifies some failings (where the response could and should have been better) but also points to successes that somehow got lost in the politicized aftermath of this disaster. The chapter demonstrates the importance of a proper framework based on insights from crisis management studies.
Analysing a Mega-Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina
Arjen Boin
Christer Brown
James A. Richardson
The response to Hurricane Katrina (2005) has been widely described as a disaster in itself.
Politicians, media, academics, survivors and the public at large have slammed the federal, state
and local response to this mega-disaster. If we are to believe the critics, the response was late,
ineffective, politically charged, and even influenced by racist motives. But is this criticism true?
Was the response really that poor? This chapter offers a framework for the analysis and
assessment of a large-scale response to a mega-disaster, which is then applied to the Katrina
response (with an emphasis on New Orleans). The chapter identifies some failings (where the
response could and should have been better) but also points to successes that somehow got lost in
the politicized aftermath of this disaster. The chapter demonstrates the importance of a proper
framework based on insights from crisis management studies.
Hurricane Katrina; U.S. disaster response; FEMA; New Orleans; strategic crisis management;
crisis leadership
Introduction: Assessing the Response to Hurricane Katrina
Hurricane Katrina reached the Louisiana coast in the early morning of Monday, August 29,
2005. Besides Louisiana, the hurricane caused wide-spread flooding and wind damage in
Alabama and Mississippi. The storm killed around 1500 people (estimates vary) across the
region. The damage to homes, critical infrastructure and the environment was immense and in
some respects even historic. Hurricane Katrina was by all accounts a mega-disaster: the single
most expensive disasters in the United States (it still tops the list as we write this).
Katrina was also a unique disaster, as it caused a large area of a major city New Orleans to
flood up to its rooftops. Whipped up by hurricane winds, flood waters broke through multiple
levees that had traditionally protected low-lying New Orleans from its watery surroundings. The
flood waters took the people of New Orleans those who had not evacuated ahead of the storm
by surprise, drowning hundreds in their homes. This necessitated a large-scale rescue effort:
survivors had to be plucked from tree tops and roofs; they were then evacuated from the
inundated city.
Many questions were raised after the disaster. Why were people left stranded in hospitals and
nursing homes? Why were survivors, congregating in large masses in the city’s largest indoor
stadium, the Superdome, the Convention Center, on highway overpasses and in the dry streets of
New Orleans, not fed and moved to safety more quickly? Why was New Orleans not better
safeguarded against the looting, rapes and murders that the media breathlessly (and in a great
many cases incorrectly) reported on throughout the crisis? As the mayor of New Orleans, the
governor of Louisiana, the director of FEMA and the president of the United States started
criticizing the response and each other, it was not at all clear who exactly was in charge of the
The performance of many response organizations and their leaders was widely and deeply
criticized by politicians, pundits and the public. For instance, the U.S. Senate’s report, A Nation
Still Unprepared, charged that “long-term warnings went unheeded and government officials
neglected their duties to prepare for a forewarned catastrophe.” The report put forward by the
Select Bipartisan Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, A Failure of Initiative, did
not pull any punches either; it saw in the Katrina response “a litany of mistakes, misjudgments,
lapses, and absurdities all cascading together”.
The report went on to argue that “officials at all
levels seemed to be waiting for the disaster that fit their plans, rather than planning and building
scalable capacities to meet whatever Mother Nature threw at them”.
This chapter argues that this negative assessment is both incomplete and unfair. It is incomplete
because it does not take into account the many things that in fact went very well during the
response. For instance, the pre-storm, car-based evacuation of New Orleans was an
unprecedented success: it was the first time that residents could leave without having to spend
endless hours in traffic jams (a success that did not extend to those residents who did not have
access to a car). Moreover, the post-landfall search and rescue effort succeeded in quickly
moving many people out of harm’s way. The prevailing critique of the response is unfair because
it fails to account for the trying conditions under which the response took place; it is, after all,
very hard to rescue people from a major city that is almost completely flooded.
This chapter offers an analysis of a very complex disaster. We assume that unless proven
otherwise officials did the best that they could to save lives. Our analysis is based on the
normative assumption that an effective and legitimate response to a crisis or disaster requires that
government is prepared to execute a set of tasks that can be summarized as follows:
Be prepared to act, meaning that actors at the local, state and national level know what is
expected of them and spring into action to prevent as much disruption/damage as
Make sense of the unfolding situation, which entails collecting, analyzing and sharing
critical information in order to create a shared picture of the situation;
Collaborate across horizontal and vertical borders to save lives and limit the damage; and,
Formulate and communicate a convincing and enabling narrative that explains what has
happened and what is being done in order to minimize the consequences of the crisis.
We apply this framework to analyze the response to Hurricane Katrina. We study how these
tasks were performed, as we try to understand what went wrong and what went well. We note the
prevailing view as to how government responded and then explain how ours differs, drawing on
available evidence. The empirical evidence is mainly drawn from an extensive reading of official
investigative and after-action reports, academic books and articles, and the extensive media
reporting during and after the disaster.
Well Prepared for the Wrong Disaster
The Select Bipartisan Committee later wrote that “[p]erhaps the single most important question
[that it] struggled to answer is why the federal response did not adequately anticipate the
consequences of Katrina striking New Orleans”.
As the Committee’s chairman, Tom Davis,
argued at the time, “[t]hat’s probably the most painful thing about Katrina, and the tragic loss of
life: the foreseeability of it all”.
This view was reflected in the Committee’s findings, which
flatly stated that “this crisis was not only predictable, it was predicted [and the] government
failed because it did not learn from past experiences”.
Why didn’t anyone see this disaster coming? Research tells us that predicting super-disasters like
Katrina is more difficult than it typically seems in hindsight.
It is fairly easy to offer general and
evidence-based scenarios about a potential threat (“San Francisco is due for a big earthquake”).
Those scenarios existed for New Orleans. But it is quite something else to predict exactly when
and how a disaster will happen, or, in this case, which hurricane will trigger a mega-disaster.
This is especially true for unique events for which no statistical base rate exists (so-called black
These scenarios may well have implications for assessing prevention efforts, but implications for
crisis preparation are harder to assess. The question is what we can reasonably expect from
government agencies responsible for crisis and disaster management. In thinking about an
answer to this question, this chapter formulates three fair expectations to guide the analysis of
government performance in the period leading up to Katrina.
Did the Authorities Willfully Ignore Clear and Unambiguous Signals of an Impending
There certainly were plenty of warnings that New Orleans faced a problem. In the years
preceding Katrina, Popular Mechanics, Scientific American, Civil Engineering Magazine, the
Natural Hazards Observer, the American Prospect and the Philadelphia Enquirer highlighted
the city’s vulnerability to hurricanes, some in more sensationalistic terms than others. Sample
headlines included “New Orleans is sinking” and “New Orleans faces doomsday scenario”.
After Katrina, many reports pointed out that government had in fact practiced dealing with just
such a scenario: Hurricane Pam was trotted out as the smoking gun proving that government
knew of the risk.
Hurricane Pam was the centerpiece of a fictitious disaster scenario.
In the summer of 2004,
local and state authorities in Louisiana worked with FEMA to explore the consequences of the
scenario. The aim was to assess and improve the general state of preparedness for a hurricane
strike on the region. The participants used Pam to create a workable regional plan, what came to
be known as the Southeast Louisiana Catastrophic Hurricane Plan.
The Pam scenario certainly bore some resemblance to Katrina. Pam was a big hurricane, just like
Katrina. It even followed the same storm track. So when it was revealed after Katrina that
officials had in fact exercised Pam, the reactions were understandably incredulous. How could
the authorities not have been more prepared? Critics charged that government, and especially
FEMA, had not learned, or did not act on the lessons learned, from the Pam exercise.
This view is too simple, however. First of all, Pam was a planning exercise, not a simulation.
This is more than a semantic difference. Officials typically use interactive disaster simulations to
practice decision-making, cooperation and coordination under stress. A simulation helps them
test their plans, skills and capacities. This was not the purpose of Pam. There was no plan that
officials wanted to test. They were not in a position to practice’. Rather, they were trying to for
the first time develop a set of plans that would hold up in the face of a large-scale hurricane. In
other words, the Pam exercise aimed to help officials address an obvious planning deficit.
Second, many lessons were learned thanks to the Pam event. Numerous action plans ranging
from debris removal, to sheltering, to search and rescue were developed. State transportation
officials used the lessons learned from both previous hurricanes and the Pam exercise in revising
Louisiana’s evacuation plan.
The Evacuation Liaison Team concept was developed, which
worked well during Katrina. The contingency plan for the medical component, almost complete
when Katrina made landfall, proved invaluable to the response effort.
The search and rescue
response orchestrated by Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries teams was organized
along the lines of a model developed during the Pam exercise.
Thinking about what might happen differs from predicting what will happen when. While there
were plenty of general warnings in the years before Katrina that New Orleans was vulnerable to
massive flooding on the heels of a hurricane, there were very few people who foresaw and
warned about the Katrina scenario. Some of the actual warnings did not surface until a few short
hours before Katrina made landfall when it was too late to do anything that might have mitigated
the storm’s effects in any significant way.
Did Authorities Take Adequate Preparatory Measures in Light of What Could Have
Reasonably Been Foreseen or Expected?
Even though authorities did not recognize a super-disaster in the making, they did take Hurricane
Katrina very seriously. There was no downplaying or ignoring the potential effects of the
hurricane. On the contrary, authorities warned one another and their constituents that a very
dangerous storm was coming and they acted accordingly.
Major preparations were launched days before landfall. The city’s emergency operations center
in the City Hall complex was activated. Louisiana’s governor, Kathleen Blanco, had by mid-
afternoon on Friday canceled a planned trip to Atlanta. That same evening, she declared a
statewide state of emergency (a full 24 hours before her counterpart in Mississippi), and issued a
formal request for a federal declaration of emergency for Louisiana. State and local agencies
placed critical personnel on standby and canceled all scheduled leave.
Blanco authorized the
immediate mobilization of 2,000 Louisiana National Guard troops to support the evacuation of
southeastern Louisiana, including New Orleans.
By Saturday, an additional 2,000 troops were
mobilized and all three of the state’s National Guard joint operations centers went into 24-hour
Later claims that senior FEMA officials underplayed the threat facing New Orleans are not
defensible on the basis of available information. The FEMA director, Michael Brown, declared
on Friday that he had “learned over the past four and a half, five years, to go with my gut on a lot
of things, and my gut hurts on this one”.
During a conference call with FEMA staff and state
officials that evening, he admonished those present and FEMA staff in particular to “lean
forward as much as possible [as] this is our chance to really show what we can do”.
These were
more than just words: House investigators found FEMA’s pre-landfall staging activities to have
been unprecedented in scale.
The states pre-storm efforts were just as substantial.
In Louisiana, the Department of Wildlife
and Fisheries moved supplies, high-water vehicles and boats to Jackson Barracks, a National
Guard facility located in central New Orleans (a site that had never previously flooded during a
hurricane). Additional kit and around 200 agents were pre-positioned in a ring just outside New
Meanwhile, officials with the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency
Preparedness in Baton Rouge worked to secure additional boats through FEMA and directly
from other states.
Called-up Guard personnel converged on New Orleans during the weekend
to assist with law enforcement, traffic control and shelter support. Other emergency responders
were standing by to begin search and rescue as soon as the storm had passed.
The city of New Orleans completed its preparations. Many local institutions universities, the
Audubon Zoo, the Aquarium, the D-Day Museum were all closed in advance of landfall.
Those who had not evacuated were offered shelter at the Superdome, where approximately 300
city and state officials were setting up shelter facilities. Several hundred National Guard troops
and police were on-site to provide security.
Did the Authorities Warn People in a Timely Fashion and Try to Move Them Out of Harm’s
After the storm, critics blamed the government for the large number of deaths and the
desperation that was witnessed in the city. By the critics’ telling, the authorities had failed to
warn local residents of the approaching storm and to evacuate those who were unable to make it
out of the city by themselves. In hindsight, there is no doubt that a more complete evacuation
would have saved more lives. It is also clear, however, that local and state government did try to
warn residents and move them out of the city.
On Saturday, Governor Blanco and local officials including Mayor Nagin held a joint news
conference in New Orleans to warn people of the approaching storm.
Nagin explained that
Katrina “is the real deal” with “New Orleans […] definitely the target.” Both the mayor and the
president of neighboring Jefferson Parish subsequently issued voluntary evacuation orders to
their constituents. All through Saturday evening, officials at every level, including the federal
level, took to the radio and television to urge residents to leave the city as soon as possible.
Behind the scenes, they worked to ensure that their message was being carried through other,
more informal channels.
For instance, Governor Blanco and her staff contacted clergy
throughout Saturday night and into early Sunday morning, asking them to urge their parishioners
to evacuate immediately.
Early on Saturday evening, Mayor Nagin reappeared before the television cameras in New
Orleans, the governor by his side. Nagin declared a state of emergency and signaled that he
would issue a mandatory evacuation order the following day. The following morning, he did just
that, the first time ever in the city’s long history. Governor Blanco traveled from Baton Rouge to
New Orleans again on Sunday for another press conference with Mayor Nagin, who called
Katrina “a once-in-a-lifetime event”. For her part, Blanco stated that “this storm is bigger than
anything we have dealt with before.” President Bush in a televised speech urged people to heed
these calls to leave.
As is often the case in the Gulf Coast states, many people seemed unconcerned about the
impending storm and unmoved by officials’ warnings. Others, however, lacked the means to
leave on their own.
Ultimately, tens of thousands remained in New Orleans prior to landfall.
Some took up the offer to shelter at the Superdome, while others hunkered down in their homes
or took to the streets, where they defiantly hosted hurricane parties, a longstanding local
Well Prepared for a Normal Disaster
Given the evidence, it would be difficult to argue that the authorities did not take Katrina
seriously, that they failed to prepare, or that they did not warn the local population. These
preparatory efforts included nearly all the activities one would expect. There was a well-executed
evacuation for those with their own vehicles; FEMA had pre-staged large amounts of resources;
Louisiana officials and the US Coast Guard had pre-positioned boats, helicopters and other
lifesaving equipment; shelters were organized.
After the storm, some people would claim that FEMA did not do enough in the face of the Big
One. There is some truth to this observation. After all, FEMA was following its ordinary routine
for a large-scale hurricane, that is. During the 2004 hurricane season, four major hurricanes and
one tropical storm hit Florida. Both DHS and FEMA received good marks for the response that
they succeeded in orchestrating in response. And indeed, 2005 had already offered up a number
of major storms that FEMA had managed competently.
While Katrina was certainly not the
first storm of the season, it was the one that officials found most alarming. For this reason, the
agency made sure to pre-position an unprecedented number of resources in areas close to the
anticipated disaster zone.
Initially at least, preparations in New Orleans followed a business-as-usual approach. However,
when it began to dawn on local authorities that Katrina was not a usual hurricane, they quickly
ramped up their own preparations, while at the same time trying to move more people out of
their houses, away from the city, or at the very least into the shelter they had set up in the
Superdome. By all accounts, New Orleans had shifted to the highest gear ever, at least when
compared with how the city had met previous hurricanes.
While New Orleans may have been primed for disaster, it was anticipating a very strong
hurricane, not a flood catastrophe. The director for the city’s Office of Homeland Security and
Public Safety would later explain: “we’re thinking [48] hours and this’ll all be over. Nobody’s
going to starve by then.”
The truth of the matter is that nobody did. The lesson here lost to
many is that pre-landfall preparations on the part of government, albeit for a powerful
hurricane, saved many lives. We can only imagine what would have happened if the authorities
had been as unprepared, uninterested and uncaring as they were made out to be after the fact.
Had there been no warnings, no evacuation, no pre-staging of boats and medical teams, the
60,000 deaths described in the Pam scenario may well have become reality.
Fragmented Sense-Making
In a disaster, information is critically important to effective crisis management: if decision-
makers do not have a shared and accurate picture of the situation, it will be difficult if not
impossible to make informed decisions and communicate effectively with officials, the political
level and the public. Crisis managers must collect information, analyze it, establish a picture of
the situation, share that picture, and then update it as new information becomes available.
must do this quickly and accurately, working together with all response organizations to
understand the evolving situation. We call this joint sense-making.
The various official inquiries into Katrina found the sense-making performance of government at
every level wanting in one way or another. At the Department of Homeland Security (DHS),
“early situational awareness was poor, a problem that should have been corrected following
identical damage assessment challenges during Hurricane Andrew”.
Similarly, the biggest
challenge for the US military’s Northern Command (NORTHCOM) was “gaining and
maintaining situational awareness as to the catastrophic disaster”.
The White House and
FEMA, as well as authorities in New Orleans and Baton Rouge encountered similar problems.
Simply put, everyone found it difficult to get a handle on what was going on in and around New
Orleans after landfall.
Looking back, it is clear that all of the puzzle pieces needed to form an accurate picture of the
situation on the ground in New Orleans were available by Monday evening, approximately 12
hours after landfall.
Hundreds of 911 calls described people stranded on rooftops and clinging
to trees. Throughout the morning and into the afternoon on Monday, the National Weather
Service offices, first responders in New Orleans, Coast Guard personnel, and the state’s Office of
Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness all released reports suggesting (but not
confirming) that at least some levees had been breached and that parts of New Orleans were
Yet, the record shows that it took a remarkably long time to recognize that the city of New
Orleans was flooding and that those remaining in the city were in immediate need of help. Most
federal officials were slow to grasp the extent of the devastation caused by Katrina; the media
were not much faster. In the days that followed, officials continued to be surprised by new and
adverse developments.
Sense-making in times of crisis is much harder than we often imagine. Crises are characterized
by deep uncertainty.
And as they evolve, “there are frequently additional negative surprises”.
It is therefore critical that accurate information is extracted from a stream of otherwise irrelevant,
ambiguous or false information. But key information is hard to locate. For instance, it takes
precious time to survey a disaster site, collect critical information, summarize that information in
an understandable way, and get the right information to the right person in the chain in the most
appropriate form. Moreover, first responders, the proverbial boots on the ground, have other
priorities in the midst of crisis; writing a solid situation report (sitrep) tends to be the last thing
on their minds when lives are in danger. While disaster plans often specify how critical
information should travel through bureaucratic layers, this rarely happens as envisioned in
practice. A mega-disaster makes this task all the more difficult.
Breakdowns in communication a common feature of disasters everywhere undermined
officials’ ability to quickly assess and reassess the situation. On the day of landfall, it was nigh
on impossible to receive authoritative reporting directly from the field due to widespread
disruptions to communications infrastructure in the region. According to House investigators, the
absence of reliable means of communication delayed “the delivery of direct assistance where it
was most needed, and it hindered the ability to forward requests to state or federal agencies that
might have been able to help”.
It is no wonder, then, that analysts in crisis centers far removed
from the scene needed more time to get a handle on the enormity of events.
It was later estimated that FEMA’s effectiveness in the city was reduced by as much as 90
percent on account of communications issues. They were hardly alone, though; even reporters
found it hard to get their stories out. As late as Tuesday morning, a full 24 hours after Katrina
made landfall, a New York Times photographer was still having trouble dispatching an article that
included aerial photographs of the flooded city.
Many people find these communications
breakdowns unacceptable but it is the rule rather than the exception.
The trying conditions of a disaster also have a psychological effect. Research tells us that even
under the best of circumstances we tend to overestimate what we think we know. It also teaches
us that the brain’s sense-making capacity quickly deteriorates under stress. When we get tired,
many routine tasks become much more difficult to accomplish.
It becomes harder to make
accurate assessments, switch between tasks, and gauge risks. We are also more likely to make
selfish or superficial choices and use improper language. While the actual impact of stress and
fatigue on decision-makers involved in crises is of course hard to assess in hindsight, it was plain
to see that many if not all key players in Baton Rouge and New Orleans were extremely tired
during the first week after landfall. Most of them admitted as much on the record, either at the
time or afterward.
We should therefore expect collective sense-making failures in the initial phase of a complex and
catastrophic crisis like Katrina. Many crises ranging from 9/11 to the Boston Marathon attack,
from Fukushima to the Paris attacks have shown how hard it is to make sense of fast-moving
events that defy plans and challenge experience. Nevertheless, it is fair to expect improvement
during the course of a disaster. That did not happen in the case of Katrina. The authorities did not
manage to adapt and enhance their collective sense-making capacity during that first week. As a
result, confusion reigned at all levels of government.
A Breakdown in the Communication Chain
Understanding what is happening in a large-scale crisis typically requires sharing information
amongst a large number of actors operating at different levels in the system.
takes place in different units, at different organizational levels, and across organizations; this
gives rise to multiple, sometimes conflicting interpretations, all of which may indeed seem
plausible at the time. Such a variety of perspectives makes it hard to collectively puzzle together
available information into a complete picture of a dynamic situation.
Officials in Washington, D.C. would later complain that they did not receive adequate and timely
information from the disaster area. There is little evidence indicating that critical information
was withheld or simply became stuck in Louisiana. In fact, throughout the first week after
landfall, waves of information (not all of it accurate) reached Washington, where it was
collected, interpreted, analyzed, summarized and shared by a range of government centers.
Much of this critical information got bottled up in the Homeland Security Operations Center
(HSOC), located at DHS headquarters. The HSOC had been designed to ‘connect the dots’
during a disaster: it was responsible at the national level for information collection and
subsequent information sharing through a number of means, including National Situation
Updates, Spot Reports and National Situation Reports. Representing over 35 agencies, it was
created on 8 July 2004 and operated with a $70 million annual budget and a staff approaching
300 in number. With hundreds of trained people paying close attention to an emerging disaster,
one might reasonably expect government’s collective sense-making to be speedy and effective.
The HSOC director, Matthew Broderick, would later claim that the HSOC during Katrina had
been just that, speedy and effective. Although he later complained that “we were getting nothing
out of Louisiana,” he asserted that HSOC officials “were able to successfully monitor operations
and [...] provide accurate and timely situational awareness to the nationwide stakeholders”.
However, the evidence does not bear this out. On the day of landfall, the HSOC did not confirm
any breaches. DHS secretary Michael Chertoff and other senior department officials would later
state that they did not learn of the collapse of the levees until Tuesday, a full day after the fact.
House investigators concluded that the HSOC “appeared to discount information that ultimately
proved accurate, and failed to provide decision-makers, up to and including the president, with
timely information”.
Why was the HSOC not able to provide more timely and accurate assessments during that first
week? One explanation is that it lacked a method by which to effectively make sense of the
effects of super-disasters. Simply put, only fact-checked information counted. The problem with
this approach was that with communications down and authorities overwhelmed after landfall,
there was very limited capacity to confirm the veracity of the information that found its way to
Washington. For instance, the federal government had a very small handful of officials in the
city during the storm (and of those, few if any were actually familiar with New Orleans, let alone
its geography).
Furthermore, the HSOC apparently did little to monitor local media. But even if
it had, it is not at all clear that the HSOC would have drawn on the reports that local radio and
newspapers were providing in its official assessments that found their way into the DHS
secretary’s and president’s briefing books; in the eyes of the HSOC management, media reports
were not verified information.
By the time that the HSOC finally did begin communicating the “facts” of the disaster, its reports
no longer had much value to decision-makers. According to Senate investigators, the process of
compiling sources, confirming information and then formulating sitreps resulted in a final
product that “was, at a minimum, five hours old” upon release.
That’s not very helpful in a fast-
evolving disaster.
A Failure of Imagination
Many officials had access to accurate information during the response to Katrina. A critical
problem was that at times these same officials did not understand the meaning or implications of
this information. State and federal officials, for instance, interpreted initial reports of a breach in
a canal wall in downtown New Orleans differently. The governor’s chief counsel recognized
these reports as being “very, very bad news” and assumed that “everybody else would recognize
that.” Meanwhile, an Army Corps official at the state’s emergency operations center in Baton
Rouge reportedly “discounted” this same report.
It appears that many state and local officials
were “lulled into a sense of security by the continual assurance by the [Army Corps leadership in
Washington] that the levees were never going to fail”.
A widely shared source of confusion concerned the difference between levees being breached
and being overtopped.
Overtopping refers to water spilling over the top of a levee, while the
levee itself remains intact and structurally sound. Overtopping is normal and potentially
dangerous, but in the end not disastrous (as the water can quickly be pumped out again). A
breach, on the other hand, is just that: the levee is actually ‘broken’, allowing water to pour
through unimpeded and at full force. According to the HSOC director, officials “spent a lot of
time on what was a breach and what was overtopping and what’s the significance of either
From their vantage point in Washington, it was unclear if the flooding in New Orleans
had been caused by the expected combination of heavy rainfall and overtopping, or by the
actual failure of the levees standing between the city and disaster.
Another problem was that officials found it hard to appreciate the importance of the information
that they had access to because it was inconceivable to them.
In his book Thinking Fast,
Thinking Slow, Kahneman explains that people do not see what they do not expect to see and, by
the same token, are more likely to see what they expect to see. An inherent limitation of the
mind, according to Kahneman, is “our excessive confidence in what we believe we know, and
our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainty of the
world we live in.”
When people cannot conceive of what might be going on, “they are very
likely to believe arguments that appear to support what they think they know, even when those
arguments are unsound”.
This might explain why some officials were selective in the types of information that they used
to inform their understandings as to what had happened in New Orleans. In other words, if you
are unable to conceive of a situation in which the levees could be breached, then you are more
likely to attach significance to reports suggesting that any flooding is localized over ones
describing a city underwater. There is evidence to suggest that this dynamic was at play within
the HSOC.
When the levees gave way early on Monday morning, we can safely assume that few officials
conjured up a mental picture of a submerged city or anticipated the magnitude of the destruction
that such a flood might entail.
The FEMA director, Michael Brown, later made an excellent
point when he suggested that if the flooding had been couched in terms of terrorism, “everybody
would have paid attention” from the outset.
However, as we will see below, many officials
apparently found it easy to believe the wildly inaccurate reports of mayhem coming out of New
Orleans after landfall.
Coordinating a Large-Scale Response: Who’s in Charge?
In a large-scale disaster response with many organizations, coordination is key. A “coordinated
crisis response” means that network partners collaborate to solve critical problems. It entails a
clear division of labor with limited overlap, the end result being that the most pressing needs of
victims are met in a timely and effective manner. The literature identifies two rather different
ways of establishing a coordinated response: a bottom-up and a top-down approach.
A bottom-up approach assumes that much of the required cooperation will happen organically
from the get-go: people are inclined to work together in response to a disaster.
This is referred
to as emergent coordination in the literature. There is no plan and no coordinator. It
materializes seemingly without any prompting from above. We speak of top down or
orchestrated coordination when collaboration is organized in formalistic fashion. There are
plans and procedures that set out who is supposed to do what. There are mechanisms for scaling
up, typically through the appointment of a coordinator to oversee the response organizations.
The underlying assumption is that collaboration does not just happen; it must be organized.
Emergent Coordination
The emergent coordination that arose after Katrina made landfall was very effective. For
instance, early on Monday morning, thousands of people were trapped by the rising floodwaters.
As the waters continued to rise over the course of the day and into the evening, the lives of more
and more people were threatened. While hundreds of people drowned as a result of the flooding,
tens of thousands more were rescued by a combination of government teams and private citizens.
Indeed, the first hours and days after Katrina produced many heroic stories of citizens helping
each other in order to survive.
In many instances, citizens banded together to help those in dire
need of assistance. One example of this was the collective of citizen volunteers that would
subsequently come to be known as the Cajun Navy:
Volunteers participating in the Cajun Navy were not willing to wait for the government
for help and took matters into their own hands. The flat-bottomed fishing boats used by
volunteers were ideal for navigating through the flooded city. The Cajun Navy was made-
up of 350 to 400 boats and people in Katrina’s aftermath. They rescued as many as
10,000 people during the response to Katrina.
Katrina brought together people who had never before met but who worked together to save
lives. In the process, they created lasting networks that in some cases would go on to mobilize in
responding to other disasters (as when the Cajun Navy deployed to Houston after Hurricane
State agencies quickly launched search and rescue operations as well. According to US Senator
Joe Lieberman, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries put on an “extraordinary
display of both organization and courage.” Rescue crews manning 60 boats began responding on
Monday afternoon. By the following afternoon, they had rescued 1500 people and fully 21,000
by the time the acute phase of the crisis was over.
Louisiana’s National Guard also engaged
immediately and played a critical role during the rescue operation despite the fact that their
primary staging area, Jackson Barracks, was completely flooded after landfall.
Orchestrated Coordination
Much of the later criticism of the government response to Katrina focused on what we would call
orchestrated coordination. Admiral Timothy Keating, NORTHCOM commander at the time,
observed that “during the first four days, no single organization or agency was in charge of
providing a coordinated effort for rescue operations”.
The House’s Select Bipartisan
Committee “found ample evidence supporting the view that the federal government did not have
a unified command”.
Louisiana’s Jeff Smith commented that “[a]nyone who was there, anyone
who chose to look, would realize that there were literally three separate Federal commands”.
The White House issued a report charging that “critical steps in the response were delayed or
foregone [because] various agencies were unable to effectively coordinate their operations”.
FEMA tried to coordinate the response. However, at some point during the week after landfall,
senior agency leadership began to realize that they were no longer up to the task. The local
command over New Orleans was essentially non-functioning. The state did step in and make up
for local-level shortcomings, but was itself quickly overwhelmed in the process. The situation
being what it was, FEMA tried to pass on at least some responsibility (for logistics, for example)
to the military, but this created its own set of problems.
Ironically, the effectiveness of the search and rescue operation played a significant role in
creating a major problem that arguably came to define how many remember Katrina today. In the
chaos of the first hours and days after landfall, volunteer rescuers and government teams created
ad hoc drop-off sites on higher ground, including a collection of highway overpasses known
locally as the Cloverleaf. Elsewhere and unbeknownst to authorities, residents moving under
their own steam began congregating at other dry sites around the city, many of which were not
readily accessible to rescuers. The city’s Ernest N. Morial Convention Center was one such
location that later in the week would create headaches at the highest echelons within DHS.
In essence, the critical problem was less one of lifesaving and more one of transportation:
authorities found themselves struggling to quickly move the tens of thousands of stranded storm
victims out of the city and into safety. Planners had not envisioned the need for a secondary
evacuation from the Superdome and other improvised sites to safe longer-term
accommodations outside the city.
Governor Blanco later referred to the situation at the Superdome and the Convention Center as
the trauma of the week.
With reports of violence at the Superdome in particular on the rise,
the state saw an urgent need to relocate its occupants elsewhere. While an airborne evacuation
was initially contemplated, officials quickly agreed that buses would be more practical. The only
problem was that initially at least, there were few buses at hand. With FEMA not delivering the
buses it had promised, Blanco felt compelled by Wednesday to begin calling for federal troops to
“secure” New Orleans and then assist in moving victims to safety.
Why did it take so long to organize buses? The solution to the problem seemed to lie in effective
coordination of numerous interlinked tasks: locate (roughly) 1,000 buses; find drivers; assign a
driver to each bus; and then send the buses to designated pick-up points in and around the city.
One could be excused for thinking that this should be less challenging than locating and then
rescuing thousands of people on the verge of drowning in their attics. However, the fact of the
matter was that while most residents that could be rescued had been by Wednesday, the
evacuation of New Orleans would only be completed on Saturday, six days after landfall.
As early as Monday evening, FEMA’s Michael Brown assured Governor Blanco that “FEMA
had 500 buses on standby, ready to be deployed.” However, Brown failed to make clear that the
deployment would take time, given that FEMA did not operate its own buses, nor had it ordered
In fact, it was the US Department of Transportation (DOT) as federal coordinator for
emergency transportation needs that was formally responsible for procuring buses, and it
would only move on the issue after receiving a formal request from FEMA.
As it was, it appears that the request process was initiated after Blanco and Michael Brown
visited the Superdome on Tuesday. Officials in Baton Rouge subsequently worked to formulate a
mission assignment for DOT, which detailed the need for 455 buses to evacuate as many as
25,000 people from the Superdome. The request only reached DOT headquarters in Washington
in the early hours of Wednesday. Brown could not explain the delay other than to say that the
“logistics system in FEMA was broken”.
But with the request finally in hand, things indeed started moving. Officials at DOT tasked
Landstar, a Jacksonville, Florida-based company, with assembling the required number of buses.
Landstar, in turn, asked its subcontractor, Carey Limousine, to order buses. That company then
“tapped Transportation Management Services of Vienna, Va., which specializes in arranging
buses for conventions and other large events, to help fill an initial order for 300 coaches”.
Complex and confusing as this may seem, the arrangement worked. The first buses arrived
outside New Orleans early in the morning on the Wednesday after landfall.
By midnight
heading into Thursday, a DOT official later reported that “some 200 buses had arrived and were
ready for operation. Another 200 buses were en route to staging points outside the city.
The governor had little if any insight into where her request for buses stood within the federal
procurement chain, let alone where the buses that had been ordered were in relation to New
Orleans. All she knew was that they were not at the Superdome, and this agitated her.
It is easy
to see why. By this point, the numbers at the Superdome had swollen to approximately 23,000.
The media were broadcasting from the site around the clock. The pressure to empty the
Superdome was growing. During a conversation with the president’s chief of staff, Andrew Card,
the governor voiced her frustration with the situation, prompting both the DHS secretary and the
director of the Homeland Security Operations Center (HSOC) to become personally involved in
“making sure that sufficient buses were lined up”
By the Wednesday after landfall, DOT was able to deliver hundreds of buses to just outside New
Orleans on the basis of FEMA’s request. So why didn’t these buses materialize at the Superdome
soon after? There are two explanations.
First of all, many of the buses were diverted from going to New Orleans in order to help other
people. The Senate report states that “when government-sponsored buses began trickling into
New Orleans on Wednesday evening, they picked up people from highway overpasses like the
A lack of coordination lay at the heart of this alternate mission. Flying over the
city during the daylight hours on Wednesday, Governor Blanco saw people congregated on
highway overpasses, prompting her to have some buses redirected to pick these people up first.
Second, there was a security issue: many bus drivers refused to enter the city in light of the
sensational reports of looting and violence in New Orleans. For this reason, the governor hastily
issued an executive order mandating that the National Guard or police protect the buses.
this decision certainly alleviated the concerns of many drivers, it slowed things down even
further. An additional problem was that many of the drivers had never been to New Orleans
before and thus struggled to find their way around the flooded city.
At least four separate bureaucracies (FEMA, DOT, DOD and the state) became involved in
different capacities and at different points in evacuating New Orleans. These different efforts
were somewhat unified following the governor’s decision to re-assign responsibility for
coordinating the evacuation to the military task force (Joint Task Force - Katrina) that was set up
after landfall. The rationale at the time was that the military was up to the task of coordinating
the mission where FEMA had failed. However, by the time “unified coordination” was
established between the different government agencies and levels, the buses procured by DOT
had already started rolling into central New Orleans and its residents were on their way to safety.
In other words, it did not really matter that the military took over the evacuation mission.
As flawed as the coordination of the Katrina response appears to have been, it is hard to see in
hindsight how the evacuation could have been accomplished any faster. Frustration with the
speed of evacuation is certainly understandable. It gave rise to several parallel efforts and as a
result created new coordination challenges (and did not ultimately make the buses arrive any
sooner). Nevertheless, looking back, we may have to allow for the possibility that the evacuation
of New Orleans was not as badly performed as today’s conventional wisdom would have it.
Meaning-Making and the Blame Game
Much of strategic crisis management is functional in nature: it is about organizing and analyzing
information, making decisions and orchestrating the activities of network partners. There is also
a symbolic dimension to strategic crisis management.
This pertains to the task of explaining
what has transpired, communicating what is being done, and offering guidance to those that have
been affected and those engaged in the response, but also to broader society. We call this
meaning-making. When citizens look to public leaders to understand what has happened to them,
they are looking for guidance. They expect leaders to offer a frame through which the crisis can
be understood and through which a way forward can be discerned.
In the first week after
landfall, none of the key actors managed to impose their frame on the general public. As a result,
rumors circulated unchecked and a sense of ever greater anarchy took hold across the city.
The Rumor Mill
Rumors always emerge after a disaster. People will fill in the blanks where uncertainty is
allowed to exist.
An official narrative that is considered plausible and legitimate may help to
counter rumors. In its absence, the rumor mill can have a devastating effect on the legitimacy of
leaders and institutions.
In a disaster, rumors of looting often emerge. Katrina was no exception. The first reports of
looting in New Orleans reached state officials in Baton Rouge on Monday evening.
In the days
that followed, the local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, repeatedly described widespread looting
at different locations around the city. On Wednesday, national television looped a video clip
showing a Walmart being plundered. The Washington Post described “looters roam[ing] the city,
sacking department stores and grocery stores and floating their spoils away in plastic garbage
cans. […] By nightfall the pillage was widespread”.
While there was looting in New Orleans, it was not as widespread as media reports suggested.
Television footage was focused on a few stores in a few locations (and was looped over and over
again). Overall, it was striking just how few stores were ransacked. When responded to, most of
the looting calls received by police “proved unfounded”, according to the Louisiana State Police
The House report found that “major looting was generally limited to the Canal Street
area and ended by Tuesday, August 30”.
Moreover, at least some of the looting was
authorized by Mayor Nagin’s emergency declaration, which provided a legal basis for the police
to commandeer things needed in order to do their job.
A Sense of Anarchy
Accounts of looting were soon followed by stories describing a city under siege and plagued by
violence. The media “featured numerous stories of looting, rape, and lawlessness, airing over and
over again video of the activities of groups that had already become ‘armed, marauding thugs’ in
the minds of viewers.”
If these reports were to be believed, New Orleans was wracked by
violence on par with post-invasion Baghdad or Mogadishu.
Some of the most heinous reports focused on the Superdome and, later, the Convention Center.
Media had people at the Superdome on record describing rampant drug use and acts of extreme
violence, including murder, being committed inside the facility; if these reports were any
indication, the occupants of the Superdome were on the cusp of rioting. On Thursday, CNN
reported that evacuations at the Superdome were suspended because “someone fired a shot at a
Officials at the scene apparently confirmed to a Times reporter that ten people had
died at the Superdome.
It got more fantastic. The New Orleans police chief, Eddie Compass, and Mayor Nagin fanned
the fire by repeating many of the more heinous rumors to the press. In doing so, these rumors
immediately went from being unsubstantiated hearsay to official fact.
In some cases, Compass
was in fact the initial source of rumors.
For instance, he told the New York Times that “thugs”
had taken control of the Convention Center and were shooting at officers stationed there, who
could not return fire “because of the families”.
According to Compass, “eight squads of 11
officers each” were not enough to repel the “thugs.” Compass went on to assert that rapes and
assaults were occurring “unimpeded in neighboring streets” and tourists were being “preyed”
He even claimed at one point that “people” had tried to kidnap him.
During the second week after landfall, Compass appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, where
he maintained that “we had little babies in there getting raped”.
Mayor Nagin was also present
on the show. For his part, he claimed that “hundreds of armed gang members” were raping
women and committing murder in the Superdome. The general population sheltered there, he
said, was “in an almost animalistic state…in that frickin’ Superdome for five days watching dead
bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people”.
While there was undeniably looting and violence, lawlessness was not anywhere near as
pervasive as reports at the time suggested.
Accounts of people shooting at helicopters were
never verified; the two babies with their throats slit at the Convention Center were never located,
nor was the man who heard a rape victim scream, ran outside for help, only to be shot and killed
by soldiers.
Sally Forman, Nagin’s communications director, later denied that her boss, as he
said, had watched “hooligans killing people, raping people”.
DHS secretary Chertoff was correct when he noted that the “Superdome has crowd control issues
but is secure”.
According to the House report, the people in the Superdome “were very
unhappy and anxious, but they were never out of control“.
The Guard troops who secured the
Convention Center said they encountered no lawlessness or any resistance.
The House report
found that there were six deaths in the Superdome, but none were crime-related.
On Friday,
when FEMA turned its attention to collecting the dead, officials expected to find 200 murder
victims based on media reports they did not find any.
The Role of the Media
The media played a crucial role in the creation and dissemination of these reports. In hindsight,
we can see that many of these reports were built on falsehoods. Experienced reporters did a lousy
job fact-checking their stories. Reporters for the New York Times, for example, gave credence to
the wild stories of NOPD Capt. Jeffrey Winn, stationed at the time at the Convention Center.
According to Winn, “violence raged inside the Convention Center [...] police SWAT team
members found themselves plunging into the darkness, guided by the muzzle flashes of thugs’
handguns.” Winn claimed that the gunfire became so routine that “large SWAT teams had to
storm the place nearly every night.” Winn recounted how a number of women had been dragged
off by groups of men and gang-raped; he informed the reporters that people were being
murdered. Eric Lipton and his Times colleagues quoted officials who confirmed that as many as
24 people had perished at the Convention Center alone.
None of this turned out to be correct.
There is no evidence that the media approached Katrina with the intention to push a certain
frame. There is in fact a much simpler explanation for the sloppy quality of their reporting.
Reporters were working under extremely difficult circumstances. Massive disruptions to
communications infrastructure and the extended flooding of the city made it difficult for
journalists to collect reports let alone confirm their veracity. Operating from a sliver of dry land
near the French Quarter, their perspective on the city was limited. They became particularly
reliant on events in the immediate vicinity (which happened to include the Superdome and the
Convention Center).
The story then wrote itself; journalists did not have to go far to find subjects willing to vent their
frustration. Rumors were taken for eyewitness reports. In the absence of any official
(government) sources, journalists were forced to adapt, seeking information from other sources
instead. Accounts became personal in nature; witness reports in many cases remained
Journalistic rigor was abandoned.
Unconfirmed reports of looting, violence and
mass rape became established facts, providing residents and spectators across the nation a
distorted view of what was happening in the city.
Some of the television reporting reinforced
racial stereotypes (for example, where black individuals were described as looters while white
individuals were in some cases depicted as storm victims seeking out critical supplies).
With little information of their own, federal, state and local officials relied heavily on these
inaccurate media reports.
Local officials repeated these reports, assuming they were true,
which journalists then faithfully reported. In other words, public officials and the media
reinforced each other’s ignorance in an echo chamber filled with unchecked rumors
masquerading as facts.
The absence of a shared frame allowed rumors to proliferate, which directly affected the
response. As fear spread, the civil unrest lens led policy makers to shift the focus from search
and rescue to securing the city.
Three days after landfall, Blanco and Nagin ordered public
safety officers to prioritize law enforcement over rescue operations.
Starting on Wednesday,
airborne and land-based SAR operations were occasionally suspended or at least temporarily
redirected to other areas.
Given the “unacceptable” level of lawlessness, Blanco requested
thousands of troops from President Bush on Wednesday. In the following days, more and more
troops and police (including SWAT teams and officers trained in riot control) poured into the
Leaders soon began to blame each other for what had happened in New Orleans. Local leaders,
the source of the wildest and most vicious rumors, were quick to blame federal officials. Their
statements were immediately picked up by the national media. The shift in public perception
caught federal and state leaders by surprise, who subsequently sought to defend their
performance. As a result, the response quickly became politicized in the days after landfall.
The White House sought to exercise more control over the response operation, which the
Louisiana governor considered unnecessary. (She later refused to federalize the response).
Sadly but predictably, it sparked a war of words that would shape how many Americans came to
see the response to Hurricane Katrina more generally.
Key Lessons
The findings presented in this chapter are substantially different than the accepted wisdom that
has emerged from the extensive media reports and the official reports that were published
immediately after the disaster. It is hard to find positive assessments of the Katrina response. The
library of Katrina publications can be summarized under the banner “utter and total failure.”
Katrina has become a byword for failure in the public administration, political science and crisis
management literatures.
The problem common to many if not most of these reports is threefold. First, these reports
usually do not offer a clear evaluative framework, a set of norms by which the response is
assessed. When the outcome is construed as disastrous in its consequences, the implicit
assumption appears to be that the response must have failed in one way or another. Few if any
reports explain what is fair to expect from a government that must respond to an unexpected
super-disaster. If we add to the mix a lack of theory and a virtual absence of crisis management
expertise, it should come as no surprise that the findings of many disaster reports are both eerily
similar and remarkably shallow.
Our chapter underlines the importance of informed crisis analysis. It is critically important to
understand what might be expected from a complex response network, which administrative
challenges must be addressed to fulfil those expectations, and what the causes for
underperformance might be. What is needed, in other words, is crisis management theory. We
applied a theoretical framework that specifically aims at the strategic level of response
organizations, taking into account the role of political and organizational leaders. This chapter
demonstrates that the systematic application of such a framework produces a more nuanced
picture than the “utter failure” judgment that characterized the immediate reactions to this super-
We wish to highlight a few key lessons from that analysis here:
Our analysis showed that response organizations at the local, state and federal level prepared for
Hurricane Katrina. In hindsight, though, it may be true that they did not prepare enough. They
prepared for a hurricane, not for a flooded city. There were no realistic and timely warnings that
the levees would break. The question thus emerges: what does it mean to be well prepared for a
disaster if that disaster can take on the unsuspected and inconceivable dimensions of a super
disaster? There is no obvious answer. A serious answer would require a normative debate in
which the costs of over-preparation are weighed against the chance of a mega-disaster occurring.
Officials at all levels continued to be surprised during that week. Even information that was
correct and clearly formulated did not suffice to create a shared picture of the situation. We
analyzed a variety of reasons in this chapter. The conclusion, we think, must be that surprise is
always possible. Officials were surprised to discover that they had a mega-disaster on their
hands. They were surprised by various adverse developments. They were surprised to learn that
certain things did not go as planned. The lesson is that officials operating at a strategic level must
learn to work with continuing and pervasive uncertainty. Rather than trying to take away that
uncertainty, they must learn to accept it.
A large-scale response to an unforeseen mega-disaster is bound to look a bit chaotic. Emergent
coordination is, by definition, improvised. Even orchestrated coordination will not always
following The Plan. But that does not necessarily take away from the outcome. Unfortunately,
the appearance of chaos is often reduced to the absence of (orchestrated) coordination. This is
not a helpful approach and prevents officials from learning valuable lessons that may inform
future response efforts.
This chapter underlines the importance of formulating a shared and sensible message in the wake
of a disaster. When officials fail to engage in what we call meaning-making, the results can be
quite detrimental. In the case of Katrina, we observed a vicious circle of wild rumors and knee-
jerk reactions, which, in turn, confirmed to many that the rumors that they were hearing were
true. Rumors thus created a reality that required new strategies while suspending effective
courses of action. Confused and frustrated officials then began to take it out on each other,
initiating a blame game that further delegitimized the response effort. This may have been the
saddest response failure: the inability to work together to check rumors and provide survivors
and observers at large with a credible and correct picture of what exactly was going on.
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‘t Hart, P. (1993). Symbols, rituals and power: The lost dimensions of crisis management.
Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 1 (1), 3650.
Tierney, K., C. Bevc, and E. Kuligowski (2006). Metaphors matter: Disaster myths, media
frames, and their consequences in Hurricane Katrina. Annals of the American Academy
of Political and Social Science, 604 (1), 5781.
Treaster, J. B., and A. Goodnough (2005, August 29). Powerful storm threatens havoc along
Gulf Coast. New York Times. Retrieved from
Treaster, J. B., and D. Sontag (2005, September 2). Local officials criticize federal government
over response. New York Times. Retrieved from
Turner, B. A. (1978). Man-made disasters. London: Wykeham.
Van Heerden, I., and M. Bryan (2006). The storm: What went wrong and why during Hurricane
Katrinathe inside story from one Louisiana scientist. New York: Viking.
Ward, R. H., L. E. Kiernan, and D. Mabrey (2006). Homeland security: An introduction.
Burlington, VT: Elsevier Science.
Weick, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Wilson, J. (2001, September 10). New Orleans is sinking. Popular Mechanics. Retrieved from
Hurricane Katrina: A quick timeline
Friday, August 26: After hitting Florida and moving into the Gulf, Hurricane Katrina takes aim
at Louisiana. Preparations begin in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. In New Orleans, there is
little apparent concern on the part of the public. The same evening, the New Orleans Saints play
a pre-season football game in the Superdome.
Saturday August 27: The evacuation of New Orleans begins. In Baton Rouge, Governor
Kathleen Blanco works with FEMA to preposition resources. Blanco and the mayor of New
Orleans, Ray Nagin, discuss evacuation and preparation issues.
Sunday August 28: Hurricane Katrina is now a Category 5 storm. Mayor Nagin, Governor
Blanco and U.S. President George Bush call on citizens to leave New Orleans. The FEMA
director, Michael Brown, arrives in Baton Rouge. New Orleans empties out. Thousands of New
Orleanians that were unable to evacuate go to the Superdome to seek shelter. The anxious wait
for Katrina begins.
Monday August 29: Katrina makes landfall in the early morning. Powerful storm surge
devastates coastal communities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The levees in New
Orleans are breached and the city begins to flood. The bowl is filling up, unbeknownst to most
people. First responders and citizens acting on their own save many, many lives.
Tuesday August 30: The US wakes to a mega-disaster. A massive response is initiated. Outside
help begins to arrive. The first rumors of looting and violence are reported in the media. In
Washington D.C., federal agencies struggle to get accurate information about the unfolding
Wednesday August 31: Disturbing pictures from New Orleans dominate the news. People are
stuck on highways, in the Superdome and the Convention Center, or are seen wandering the
streets. Anarchy has reportedly taken hold in New Orleans. Federal and state leaders struggle to
produce a clear message.
Thursday September 1: The response is increasingly described in the media as “too little, too
late”. FEMA becomes a household name for failure. Meanwhile, the evacuation of the
Superdome using buses procured by the U.S. Department of Transportation begins.
Friday September 2: The Superdome is evacuated, as is most of the city. President Bush visits
New Orleans and confers with Nagin, Blanco and Brown. Many military resources begin
arriving, as do various federal agencies. The worst is almost over. In the media, however, the
blame game is in full swing.
Weekend, September 3-4: The Convention Center is evacuated. New Orleans is now mostly
empty. While the ordeal for survivors is far from over, authorities can now start to focus on the
long-term task of bringing the city back to life.
Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina (2006a: x).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 2).
For a theoretical foundation, see Boin et al (2016).
We present a much more complete picture and a detailed explanation of our research method in the book from
which this chapter is drawn (see Boin, Brown and Richardson, 2019). "A cognitive-institutional process tracing
methodology developed by researchers at the National Center for Crisis Research and Training (CRiSMART) at the
Swedish National Defense University in Stockholm was used in collecting empirical data concerning the acute
phase of the response to Katrina.
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 137).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 80).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: xi).
Clarke (1999); Tetlock (2005).
Taleb (2007).
Berger (2001); Wilson (2001).
The scenario was designed by disaster management consultancy IEM, then based in Baton Rouge.
Office of the Inspector General (2006: 124); Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 81).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 82).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 83).
Committee on Homeland Security (2006a:8).
Committee on Homeland Security (2007a).
Committee on Homeland Security (2007b: 44).
Committee on Homeland Security (2007b: 44); Committee on Homeland Security (2006a: 150).
Cooper & Block (2006: 102).
The White House, 2006: 28, 29; Cooper & Block, 2006: 101-102.
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 59).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 59, 62, 64).
Brinkley (2006: 116).
Committee of Homeland Security (2007c); Committee of Homeland Security (2006a: 597)
The White House (2006: 35).
Brinkley (2006: 40-41).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006b: 89); Brinkley (2006: 78) mentions 900 Guardsmen.
McQuaid and Schleifstein (2006: 172).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 109); Committee on Homeland Security (2007d: 139); Committee on
Homeland Security (2006a: 5).
Brinkley (2006: 40); Committee on Homeland Security (2007d: 139).
The White House (2006: 26).
Treaster and Goodnough (2005).
The White House (2006: 25).
Brinkley (2006: 60).
Katrina was preceded by Hurricanes Cindy (Cat. 1), Dennis (Cat. 4), Emily (Cat. 5) and Irene (Cat. 2).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 59).
Cooper & Block (2006: 119).
Weick (1995).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 224).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 224).
Boin, Brown and Richardson (2019), Appendix I.
Rosenthal et al. (1989; 2001).
Leonard and Howitt (2009).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 168).
Brinkley (2006: 235-236).
Coates (2012); Kahneman (2011).
Turner (1978); Boin et al. (2016).
Ward et al. (2006: 65).
Committee on Homeland Security (2007e: 71, 109).
Committee on Homeland Security (2007e: 66).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 143).
Cooper and Block (2006: 183).
Committee on Homeland Security (2006a: 304).
Cooper and Block (2006: 137).
Parker et al. (2009).
The White House (2006: 35); Cooper and Block (2006: 136-137).
Broderick (2006).
See Dror (2001) on the inconceivability of modern crises.
Kahneman (2011: 14); cf. Tetlock (2005).
Kahneman (2011: 45).
Committee on Homeland Security (2007e: 67).
Cf. Brinkley (2006: 172).
Committee on Homeland Security (2007e: 15).
Chisholm (1989); Boin and Bynander (2015).
Solnit (2010).
Brinkley (2006); Solnit (2009).
“The Great Cajun Navy” (2016).
Committee on Homeland Security (2007c: 4).
Cooper and Block (2006: 125). FEMA’s own urban search and rescue (USAR) teams played a more modest yet
important role. The first of these units (pre-positioned in Barksdale, Louisiana) only arrived in the area on Monday
evening and would not launch operations until the following morning. All told, the FEMA teams reportedly rescued
6,582 people, this despite the fact that water rescue was not formally part of the USAR teams’ mission or a central
component of their training (Committee on Homeland Security 2007c: 8).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 230).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 189).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 189).
The White House (2006: 57).
Committee on Homeland Security (2007d: 24).
Cooper and Block (2006: 104, 121).
Committee on Homeland Security (2007e: 48).
Martin and Zajac (2005).
Committee on Homeland Security (2006a: 363); Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 121).
Committee on Homeland Security (2007f: 40).
Brinkley (2006: 392).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 121).
Broderick (2006); Committee on Homeland Security (2006a: 362).
Committee on Homeland Security (2006a: 364),
Committee on Homeland Security (2007d: 146, 365).
Brinkley, 2006: 291; Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a: 122.
‘t Hart (1993).
Boin et al (2008).
cf. Larsen (1954); Shibutani (1966); Tierney et al (2006).
Committee on Homeland Security (2007c).
Gugliotta and Whoriskey (2005).
Brinkley (2006).
Cooper and Block (2006: 169).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 243); cf. Baum (2006).
Tierney, et al., 2006: 68; McClellan, 2008: 288.
Alexander (2006); Dynes and Rodriguez (2006); van Heerden and Bryan (2006: 131).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 247); see also Treaster and Sontag (2005).
Lipton et al (2005).
Cooper and Block (2006: 193-4; 205-6); Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 242).
Brinkley (2006: 282, 365).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 248).
Treaster and Sontag (2005).
Baum (2006).
Brinkley (2006: 573).
Cooper and Block (2006: 193).
Brinkley (2006: 634); Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 281); Treaster and Sontag (2005).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 247).
Forman (2007); Baum (2006).
Treaster and Sontag (2005).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 248).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 248).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 169).
Cooper and Block (2006: 223).
Lipton et al (2005).
Lipton et al (2005).
Durham (2008: 111).
Durham (2008); Ettema (2005); Langer (1998).
Baum (2006).
Select Bipartisan Committee (2006b: 295).
Tierney et al (2006).
Committee on Homeland Security (2007c); Blumenthal and McFadden (2005); McQuaid and Schleifstein (2006:
Cooper and Block (2006: 197); Lacaze (2006); Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a: 286).
Berger (2009).
Cooper and Block (2006).
See Ansell and Boin (2019) for a reflection on this challenge.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
Modern societies are increasingly faced with “unknown unknowns,” Black Swans, and mega-crises. Both public and corporate leaders find it deeply challenging to respond to these crisis events. Existing approaches and tools to cope with crisis-induced uncertainty are of little help in these dynamic environments. This article explores how the principles of Pragmatism may provide the building blocks for a theory of effective strategic crisis management. We argue that these principles, formulated by a group of American philosophers in a time of deep uncertainty, provide a way of thinking that will help practitioners prepare for, and deal with, emerging risks, crises, and disasters.
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The abstract for this document is available on CSA Illumina.To view the Abstract, click the Abstract button above the document title.
Katrina was one of the worst natural disasters in US history. The assessments have been harsh: Katrina has become a byword for failure. The president failed, the federal government failed (FEMA/DHS), the state of Louisiana failed, the city administration of New Orleans failed. Or so the assessments tell us. But these assessments somehow missed (or de-emphasize) all the things that went really and surprisingly well. This just begs the question: what is the underlying framework that evaluators use to assess the response to a megadisaster? How do they determine that “government failed” in circumstances that are hard to prepare for and often nearly impossible to do well? Many reports have been written and most of these lack a clear discussion of the underlying assessment framework. This book seeks to remedy this fallacy. It offers a clear framework that can be used to fairly assess how the various actors reacted to this disaster. We then apply this framework to provide our own assessment of the Katrina response. The results of our assessment provide a more nuanced perspective on the response. It was not all perfect, but the response certainly was not as bad as official and media reports made it out to be. Our book invites the reader to reconsider the role of government in the face of disaster. We also draw lessons for those who have to prepare for and handle future disasters. Many lessons were learned by a host of academics and inquiries (Hurricane Katrina may well the most extensively studied disaster in history).. But these lessons are quite contradictory when viewed in concert; more importantly, some of these lessons are plain wrong. Building on an extensive review of the many reports and inquiries, and drawing on insights from crisis and disaster management studies, this book identifies the critical factors that determine the success and failures of a societal response to super disasters. We explain how federal, state and local actors can learn from Hurricane Katrina and start designing the building blocks for an effective and legitimate response.
Crisis management has become a defining feature of contemporary governance. In times of crisis, communities and members of organizations expect their leaders to minimize the impact, while critics and bureaucratic competitors make use of social media to blame incumbent rulers and their policies. In this extreme environment, policymakers must somehow establish a sense of normality, and foster collective learning from the crisis experience. In the new edition of this uniquely comprehensive analysis, the authors examine how strategic leaders deal with the challenges they face, the political risks and opportunities they encounter, the pitfalls they must avoid, and the paths towards reform they may pursue. The book is grounded in decades of collaborative, cross-national and multidisciplinary case study research and has been updated to include new insights and examples from the last decade. This is an original and important contribution from experts in public policy and international security. © Arjen Boin, Paul 't Hart, Eric Stern, and Bengt Sundelius 2017. All rights reserved.
The intelligence failures surrounding the invasion of Iraq dramatically illustrate the necessity of developing standards for evaluating expert opinion. This book fills that need. Here, Philip E. Tetlock explores what constitutes good judgment in predicting future events, and looks at why experts are often wrong in their forecasts. Tetlock first discusses arguments about whether the world is too complex for people to find the tools to understand political phenomena, let alone predict the future. He evaluates predictions from experts in different fields, comparing them to predictions by well-informed laity or those based on simple extrapolation from current trends. He goes on to analyze which styles of thinking are more successful in forecasting. Classifying thinking styles using Isaiah Berlin's prototypes of the fox and the hedgehog, Tetlock contends that the fox--the thinker who knows many little things, draws from an eclectic array of traditions, and is better able to improvise in response to changing events--is more successful in predicting the future than the hedgehog, who knows one big thing, toils devotedly within one tradition, and imposes formulaic solutions on ill-defined problems. He notes a perversely inverse relationship between the best scientific indicators of good judgement and the qualities that the media most prizes in pundits--the single-minded determination required to prevail in ideological combat. Clearly written and impeccably researched, the book fills a huge void in the literature on evaluating expert opinion. It will appeal across many academic disciplines as well as to corporations seeking to develop standards for judging expert decision-making.
The organizational history of American government during the past 100 years has been written principally in terms of the creation of larger and larger public organizations. Beginning with the Progressive movement, no matter the goal, the reflexive response has been to consolidate and centralize into formal hierarchies. That efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability, and the coordination necessary to achieve them, are promoted by such reorganizations has become widely accepted. Borrowing from social psychology, sociology, political science, and public administration, and using the public transit system of the San Francisco Bay area for illustrative purposes, Donald Chisholm directly challenges this received wisdom. He argues that, contrary to contemporary canons of public administration, we should actively resist the temptation to consolidate and centralize our public organizations. Rather, we should carefully match organizational design with observed types and levels of interdependence, since organizational systems that on the surface appear to be tightly linked webs of interdependence on closer examination often prove decomposable into relatively simpler subsystems that may be coordinated through decentralized, informal organizational arrangements. Chisholm finds that informal channels between actors at different organizations prove remarkably effective and durable as instruments of coordination. Developed and maintained as needed rather than according to a single preconceived design, informal channels, along with informal conventions and contracts, tend to match interorganization interdependence closely and to facilitate coordination. Relying on such measures reduces the cognitive demands and obviates the necessity for broadscale political agreement typical of coordination by centralized, formal organizations. They also advance other important values that are frequently absent in formally consolidated organizations, such as reliability, flexibility, and the representation of varied interests. Coordination Without Hierarchy is an incisive, penetrating work whose conclusions apply to a wide range of public organizations at all levels of government. It will be of interest to a broad array of social scientists and policymakers. In an earlier version, Coordination Without Hierarchy received the American Political Science Association 1985 Leonard D. White Award for the best doctoral dissertation in the field of public administration, including broadly related problems of policy formation and administrative theory.
In virtually every assessment of responses to large-scale crises and disasters, coordination is identified as a critical failure factor. After the crisis, official committees and political opponents often characterize the early phases of the response as a ‘failure to coordinate.’ Not surprisingly, improved coordination quickly emerges as the prescribed solution. Coordination, then, is apparently both the problem and the solution. But the proposed solutions rarely solve the problem: coordination continues to mar most crises and disasters. In the absence of a shared body of knowledge on coordination, it is hard to formulate a normative framework that allows for systematic assessment of coordination in times of crisis. As coordination is widely perceived as an important function of crisis and disaster management, this absence undermines a fair and balanced assessment of crisis management performance. This paper seeks to address that void. We aim to develop a framework that explains both the failure and success of crisis coordination. We do this by exploring the relevant literature, reformulating what coordination is and distilling from research the factors that cause failure and success.