Hurricane Katrina was not only well known for its actual size and strength but for the astonishing aftermath it created in Louisiana and Mississippi. The total lack of preparation and response to hurricane Katrina was due to the failed response of all levels of government, including federal, state, and local. On top of the government’s lack of initiative, there were several bad decisions throughout the hurricane that made the already existing problems even worse. The terrible aftermath of this disaster could have been greatly reduced if all forms of government had been more prepared and organized on all the procedures needed to deal with Katrina. On all levels there were delayed responses that were vital for the public to know and how to proceed with what they were about to face. The federal government’s response was almost a complete failure due to FEMA, while the state had made costly mistakes when it came to timely requests for troops and other forms of help. The local level had to deal with the consequences of not maintaining their disaster plan and lack of maintenance on the important levee systems.
Federal Government and FEMA’s Response
The federal government’s response to Katrina could possibly be the worst response to a disaster in America’s history because of the federal emergency management agency (FEMA). FEMA’s promise to the victims and the nation was this, “FEMA is not going to hesitate at all in this storm. We are not going to sit back and make this a bureaucratic process. We’re gonna move fast, we’re gonna move quick and we’re gonna do whatever it takes to help these disaster victims” (Sobel, Leeson). These words were said by FEMA director Michael Brown the day before Katrina made landfall. Anyone that watched Katrina and the response unfold knows that this could not be any farther from the truth. A prime example of FEMA’s poor response time was when they decided to request military assistance a full day after Katrina hit, and that request was only for 2 helicopters to perform flyovers of the areas hit by the storm. Government officials had known that one of the levees had broken and failed the day Katrina hit at 6:00 pm, officials waited until the next day, when the city had been flooding for almost 24 hours before they decided to sound the alarm (Sobel, Leeson). Just another example of how the government hesitancy had a key role in the aftermath of Katrina. After Katrina, FEMA served the role of coordinating all of the relief supplies, and as the primary permission granter to allow suppliers to enter the disaster area. FEMA had a major role in knowing who needed supplies, what kind of supplies, the amount, and the location they were needed. Then they were responsible for retrieving those supplies and delivering them to those in need as soon as possible. It became clear very soon that those tasks were much easier said than done when it came to FEMA. In the first week of relief activities alone, FEMA refused to ship trailers to Mississippi that could be used as temporary housing for disaster victims, turned away critical generators needed by hospitals and victims for power, turned away trucks with water demanded by many, prevented the coastguard from delivering fuel critical to facilitating recovery activities, and refused Amtrak’s offer to evacuate victims who desperately needed to get out the disaster zone(Sobel, Leeson). After being refused by FEMA many of these organizations decided to go against the government and do what they thought was right, these are where the real success stories come from. The U.S. Coast Guard began helicopter rescues with 9 helicopters and 2 airplanes before any government approval, resulting in hundreds of saved lives that might not have made it by the time the government approved these rescue operations(Sobel, Leeson). The Coast Guard alone rescued around half of the 75,000 stranded victims(Sobel, Leeson). FEMA’s misallocation of relief labor and supplies seemed to be never ending. FEMA moved a medical team of 30 people capable of treating hundreds of hurricane victims from Alabama to Mississippi, and then to Texas. For 11 days, medical team members say their relief activities were reduced to treating one small cut. And then FEMA moved them again, everywhere but where they were needed and could accomplish the most, which was in New Orleans. As one frustrated medical team member lamented, “We joined the team to help people who need it and we are not helping anybody” (Sobel, Leeson). FEMA was responsible for unmet hopes and desires for victims, there were countless numbers of unutilized relief suppliers just waiting for permission or a response from FEMA to be able to offer their assistance. Over time many organizations and people gave up trying to offer their resources because FEMA never responded. This lack of preparedness cannot be blamed on their lack of knowledge for a potential disaster. According to the national hurricane center, the danger in New Orleans was known by many for years, giving FEMA no excuse and plenty of time to devise a plan for a disaster like Katrina. As New York Times journalist David Brooks put it, “Katrina was the most anticipated natural disaster in American history, and still government managed to fail at every level” (Sobel, Leeson). Even though the media, citizens of new Orleans, and others were aware of the impending danger that Katrina would bring, key government relief management people were not, and if they were they did not take these warnings seriously. Secretary of the department of homeland security, Michael Chertoff did not declare Katrina an “incidence of national significance” until 36 hours after landfall (Sobel, Leeson) . Even after the National Hurricane Center predicted two days before Katrina would hit the gulf coast. FEMA director Michael Brown throughout the first few weeks seemed to be unaware of the numerous operations being planned, waiting for approval, and even the ones that were going on. Brown only found out that victims were being moved to one of the city’s convention centers after being informed by a television journalist (Sobel, Leeson). Brown was quickly becoming an embarrassment to the government with his countless mistakes and poor decisions. It was clear he had no previous experience with crisis management or disaster relief, having no level of expertise he was eventually removed as director. Vice admiral Thad Allan was chosen as a replacement after his successful leadership in the rescue operations of the Coast Guard(Sobel, Leeson).
Katrina caused 50 levee failures, with 28 reported levee failures in the first 24 hours that Katrina made landfall(Sobel, Leeson). These failures cause 80% of the flooding in New Orleans; the main cause of the flooding was the inadequate design and construction by the corps of engineers. Engineers made several unsafe interpretations when building the levees, such as assuming the soil was stronger than it actually was causing the levees to break easier than expected(Sobel, Leeson). Also the state and local government chose to ignore the deteriorating levees that at the time were not even capable of withstanding a heavy storm or category 1 hurricane never mind a category 3 like Katrina. If the proper repairs and maintenance were given to the levees they would have been able to withstand a category 3. If the levees did not fail the aftermath of Katrina would have been drastically different, for the better. Even if the levees failed the local government should have had a system in place that could alert the public that a levee had failed so they could take the proper precautions, if there was an alert system the chaos of the levee flooding could have been significantly smaller. The destruction and damage to houses would be very limited and rescue efforts would have been much more easier and efficient leading to a quicker recovery of the city.
State and Local Government
Although many of the major issues related to the lack of preparation and failed response to Katrina was on the federal level of the government, there were several things that both the state and local government could have done in order to be more prepared and effective in their response. Louisiana governor Blanco originally refused to declare martial law or state of emergency until she realized the true disaster that hurricane Katrina was about to create. Blanco waited until two days after Katrina hit when the city was already under water to request the National Guard(Sobel, Leeson). Another delayed response was made by New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, he waited almost 24 hours after getting the call from the National Hurricane Center director that an “untold disaster would soon be upon the city” and to mandate an evacuation immediately(Sobel, Leeson). By waiting until the day before Katrina hit to evacuate Nagin was setting the majority of the residents of New Orleans up for disaster, many had no way of evacuating in that short amount of time and were forced to stay home and endure Katrina. Nagin also failed to execute New Orleans disaster plan, which involved using the city’s school buses to evacuate residents that were not able to leave on their own, those buses were never deployed and eventually destroyed in the flooding(Sobel, Leeson). Hundreds of helpless victims could have been saved if the buses were deployed and used to bring residents to safety. Instead of having a fully trained staff in an emergency operations center, New Orleans tried to manage the disaster from a hotel ballroom with inadequate back up communications (Sobel, Leeson). When phone services failed they had little to no communication with others to inform them of their needs.
Prevention and Reforms
These issues stated above are examples of the fundamental problems of disaster relief that need to be solved. Centralized authority such as FEMA should no longer be the main source of disaster management after their failed attempt at responding to Katrina (Sobel, Leeson). Decentralized responses should be used with private companies doing their own part in the relief. This means there would be less waiting for requests to be passed by all levels of the government and quicker response to those who need it most. Time is key in responding to a disaster such as Katrina, so by taking away the need to have every action approved by the government it will have a large impact on the number of lives saved.
Another reform that could be useful would be any type of reform that depoliticizes the process of disaster relief. So political figures do not have to worry about the negative or positive impacts of their decisions in a time of crisis (Sobel, Leeson). Another more extreme type of reform would be to take the government out of the relief all together. By privatizing all disaster management it would eliminate all political problems and obstacles to general aid (Sobel, Leeson). A more realistic version of that reform would be giving the government limited responsibility. The government would remain an active part in relief by approving grants and funds to support the relief efforts, but also giving private sectors the ability to effectively respond to the situation.
Other simple and somewhat obvious solutions to the problems that appeared during Katrina are, having a set plan for communications with others if a disaster should happen. Keeping up with the structures that are meant to protect the city and towns from hurricanes such as the levees. Giving adequate time for everyone to evacuate, especially those that might not have their own means of transportation to leave on their own time. If these were all done the aftermath of Katrina would not have been as bad as it was, there would be less people stranded in need of rescue and the number of levees broken could be much less, and for those that were stuck if there was better communication between officials, supplies could have been distributed to those in need much sooner.