In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the southeast coast of the United States, causing loss of life and damage to property in excess of $100 billion (Gibbens, 2019). This Category 3 storm took the lives of at least 1200 people, and countless others suffered years of destitution as a direct result of the damage, which increased with the failed response efforts by the government (Gibbens, 2019). The common theme emerging from each of the sources reviewed - and many that are not referenced in this work – is that although the Katrina storm was a natural disaster that did a great deal of damage on its own, the true devastation and resulting catastrophe was caused by the disastrous response by government authorities, specifically the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The National Response Framework contains 29 different federal agencies that have a role in disaster relief (Edwards, 2015). There is also a National Incident Command System, so there may be too many “nationally” focused systems, and these may not be as effective in a local or state-level response need. Is it possible that the delay in federal response and subsequent dysfunctional coordination of relief, was driven by the race or socioeconomic status of the residents? Is it conceivable that local and state response systems would provide more successful outcomes than the national or federal red-tape-laden agencies? Let us further explore the inequities of this disaster response.
Minimizing or Preventing the Disaster in Advance
The first failure lies within the warnings about the strength and design of the levees, that we now know were dismissed repeatedly for several years prior to Katrina. The southern border of Louisiana was supposed to be safe from flooding because of a network of levees that made up the federal flood protection system. This system, though, was redesigned and a rebuilding process began in 1965. After years of budget cuts and diversion of funding to other projects, the rebuild was only 60-90% complete when Katrina hit (Pruitt, 2020). When levees broke in more than 50 locations, almost 80% of the city of New Orleans was under water (Pruitt, 2020). The city sits uniquely below sea level already, according to McMahan (2022). This was not the first time for severe flooding though, as hurricanes had previously flooded New Orleans five times since 1915, according to History.com Editors (2022).
A population of roughly 100,000 remained in the city during the storm despite evacuation orders, but one must consider how many residents were physically unable to evacuate, could not afford to evacuate, did not know to evacuate, or did not have the transportation necessary to evacuate (McMahon, 2022). According to the History.com Editors (2022), over 110,000 of the New Orleans residents (approximately 500,000) did not have access to a car.
Weaknesses in the Response
In a catastrophe of this magnitude, there are so many working parts that need to be addressed and yes, it starts with prevention, but beyond that there should be a process in place as soon as possible to mitigate loss of life and property. These are just a few considerations that come to mind:
- Is there a warning/alert/announcement system in place? Is it accessible to all members of the public? Is it audible/visible without power supply? Who would potentially not receive the alerts?
- What is the evacuation need? Is there a plan for evacuation? What is the timeline? How quickly can residents be evacuated? Where will they be directed to go?
- What search and rescue resources are available for those who did not, could not, or would not evacuate? Where can those affected go after the fact, to gather? Where can the remaining residents commune for food, shelter, water, clothing, supplies, and medical aid?
Suggested disaster risk management steps include components of prevention, mitigation, transfer, and preparedness (United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction [UNDRR], n.d.). During Katrina, there were extreme limitations in assistance available to the victims, and tragically, the response by the federal government was also delayed. The government response turned out to be too little, too late. The worst of the disaster came not from the storm itself, but from the response (or lack thereof) by the government. It should be noted that much of the damage from the storm was unavoidable, but the ripple-effect disasters that followed could have been prevented.
There was plenty of time to begin evacuation efforts prior to the storm and subsequent flooding. Because of the confusion and lack of proactive engagement by officials, faulty information was provided to the public (Edwards, 2015). Edwards goes on to report that “there was general confusion over mission assignments, deployments, and command structure” (2015, para. 3). Despite simulation exercises performed the prior year, officials failed at learning and implementing the key lessons from that drill (Edwards, 2015). During Katrina, there were breakdowns in communication, supply chains, and decision making (Edwards, 2015). Those put in key leadership positions for FEMA were inexperienced in disaster management (Edwards, 2015).
In the aftermath, there were instances of excessive fraud and abuse regarding distribution of relief funds (Edwards, 2015). Millions were left homeless and more than 400,000 ended up leaving New Orleans for good (Pruitt, 2020). Probably the most appalling aspect of this entire disaster response system is reported by Edwards in his 2015 article. He notes that FEMA blocked relief from the people of New Orleans and he provided examples of actions taken by FEMA. The following bullet points are directly quoted or minimally altered from the Edwards (2015) article, depicting actions taken by FEMA (para. 9):
- repeatedly blocked delivery of emergency supplies ordered by Methodist Hospital in New Orleans
- turned away volunteer doctors because they were not listed in the government records as emergency volunteers
- actively blocked flights intended to emergently evacuate residents and offered no assistance in coordinating evacuation services
- refused Amtrak offers for evacuation assistance and would not return calls from the American Bus Association or even the Motorcoach association, who were offering evacuation assistance
- denied necessary access for the Red Cross to deliver emergency supplies to the Superdome
- turned away trucks from Walmart loaded with water for New Orleans and prevented the Coast Guard from delivering diesel fuel
This list is not exhaustive but depicts the abhorrent inequities of this disaster response. So again, is it possible that these actions occurred because 69% of the New Orleans population is black (Sastry, 2009)? Was it race or socioeconomic status of the New Orleans residents that caused those in power to dismiss the emergent nature of the disaster? It must be considered based on the extreme negligence and inequity that anathematized the city of New Orleans.
What Went Right
Despite all the atrocities listed in the previous section, many things went right with some of the response to Katrina. The local Coast Guard response was integral to the rescue of more than 30,000 people, after they deployed 4,000 service members (Edwards, 2015). The state-commanded National Guard was there to establish and reinforce law and order, when the police force was incapacitated by the storm (Edwards, 2015). The strength of the private sector was revealed with the Red Cross, The Salvation Army, Walmart and its employees, and the Home Depot, all coming through with provisions and supplies for food, shelter, water, clothing, and support (Edwards, 2015).
Preventing Future Occurrences
In looking at the potential for preventing or minimizing a disaster like this from happening again, certainly community risk assessments could be performed. For this Katrina disaster, the well-studied failures offer more insight than anything else on how to prevent or respond in similar situations. For New Orleans, a rebuild was required for hurricane defenses and “...cost $14.6 billion...” to complete by 2018 (Gibbens, 2019, para. 19). Federal, state, and local governments spent more than $20 billion to construct new levees along more than 350 miles of coastline (Pruitt, 2020). Prior to Katrina, funding for the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) which would have allowed for the addition of safety measures in their design and upkeep of the levee system was not provisioned (McMahon, 2022). This funding decision was made based on a risk analysis that was conducted, which weighed the costs of installing new levees against the cost of coping with the after-effects of a major disaster (McMahon, 2022). The risk analysis performed in this instance did nothing to benefit the community when it came to the Katrina disaster.
All-in-all, Hurricane Katrina was a terrible natural disaster that garnered a slow, dismissive, and poorly constructed federal response effort that failed to help the people who needed help the most. As if there were not enough lessons from other past failures, this disaster set the bar at an all-time-low for government response in the United States.
Edwards, C. (2015, August 27). Hurricane Katrina: Remembering the federal failures. Cato.org. Retrieved December 30, 2022, from https://www.cato.org/blog/hurricane-katrina-remembering-federal-failures
Gibbens, S. (2019, January 16). Hurricane Katrina facts and information. Environment. Retrieved December 30, 2022, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/hurricane-katrina
History.com Editors, H. E. (2019, August 9). Hurricane Katrina. History.com. Retrieved December 30, 2022, from https://www.history.com/topics/natural-disasters-and-environment/hurricane-katrina
McMahon Last Modified Date: December 21, M. (2022, December 21). What caused the levees to break in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina? UnitedStatesNow.org. Retrieved December 30, 2022, from https://www.unitedstatesnow.org/what-caused-the-levees-to-break-in-new-orleans-during-hurricane-katrina.htm
Pruitt, S. (2020, August 27). How levee failures made hurricane Katrina a bigger disaster. History.com. Retrieved December 30, 2022, from https://www.history.com/news/hurricane-katrina-levee-failures
Sastry, N. (2010, August 1). Tracing the effects of hurricane Katrina on the population of New Orleans: The Displaced New Orleans Residents Pilot Study. Sociological methods & research. Retrieved December 30, 2022, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20161061/
United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR). (n.d.). Disaster risk reduction & disaster risk management. PreventionWEB. Retrieved December 30, 2022, from https://www.preventionweb.net/understanding-disaster-risk/key-concepts/disaster-risk-reduction-disaster-risk-management