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The purpose of this paper is to explore a specific aspect of the Hurricane Katrina disaster and the collective response (governmental and otherwise) to this situation. Because of the physical destruction of this natural disaster and the ensuing media coverage, there has been a wealth of information published analyzing Hurricane Katrina, what went wrong, and why it went wrong. So much study and analysis has occurred on this subject, one might assume that it is exhaustive. However, there are various areas that are still unexplored, now almost a decade removed, which deserve examination.
The way that this disaster was planned for, responded to, and recovered from was highly inadequate and resulted in a great deal of additional harm than was absolutely necessary (Seidman, 2013). The actual wrongdoing perpetrated by the different levels of government and various disaster response agencies has been discussed over and over again, both in terms of media coverage and academic publications. Hurricane Katrina has been a prime example of how a disaster should not be handled and will likely provide value as a case study in disaster management for decades to come (Shaw & Krishnamurthy, 2009).
All that being said, one key area that research and analysis has largely failed to explore is the actual gap in resources and human health that exists between the actual events of Hurricane Katrina (and its aftermath) and the events of this scenario were the hurricane dealt with in an ideal manner.
While identifying the actual scope and details of this gap between actual and ideal results may be considered an exercise in futility, the truth is that such exploration has numerous benefits. First of all, the identification of this gap provides clear cut information on how the results of Hurricane Katrina would have differed had the government been more proactive and adaptive. Quantitative information using numbers, statistics, and other facts is heavily relied upon by legislators in the United States for drafting laws and regulations (Shaw & Krishnamurthy, 2009). Being able to definitely put a number on how many lives were lost and how many millions of dollars were wasted as a result of the inadequate response by government officials and various response agencies provides a clear cut motive for passing further legislation to avoid similar results in the future.
Furthermore, there are some parties, particularly within the government, that still point to Hurricane Katrina as an unavoidable tragedy which would have resulted in immense harm and disaster no matter the actions of the government (Haubert, 2015). Analyzing the true disparity in the impact of this hurricane had the ideal actions and response taken place allows for the full impact of the disaster mismanagement to be realized.
Such analysis also helps inform response and preparation activities for future disasters, and not just for hurricanes. Most of the inadequacies of the response to Hurricane Katrina could easily occur in other non-hurricane disasters (Shaw & Krishnamurthy, 2009). As this gap is materialized it allows the various parties involved in disaster response to realize the clear benefit to avoiding the same mistakes that befell the Hurricane Katrina disaster. It also allows to see how effective various techniques are for mitigating risks and potential harm. Studies have shown that one of the key reasons why emergency management practitioners fail to utilize established techniques and strategies during times of disaster is because they simply do not believe in the value or efficacy of these techniques (Shaw & Krishnamurthy, 2009). Demonstrating the true value of such techniques through analysis of gap between actual and ideal results helps emphasize their effectiveness and encourages alignment with established protocol during disaster scenarios.
In short, examining this gap can lead to more effective legislation changes and disaster management around the world. While it may seem pointless analyzing what could have been, the truth is that such a practice does have tangible benefits for the future of disaster response and preparation in the form of money, resources, and human life.
Hurricane Katrina is unique from many other natural disaster that have occurred in this country’s history for several different reasons. First of all, the hurricane acted in a way that was very unpredictable compared to many similar storms of its kind (Taylor et al, 2015). In the days leading up to the hurricane making landfall, there was a great deal of ambiguity regarding where it would travel, and how strong it would be once it got there (Taylor et al, 2015). Furthermore, the potential effects of the hurricane were highly underestimated (Seidman, 2013). As one might imagine, the underestimation of a disaster’s true impact can be extremely harmful. This lack of effective estimation led to the city and the government at large being woefully unprepared for the magnitude of this disaster.
Hurricane Katrina officially made landfall in New Orleans on August 29, 2005 (Cook, 2015). As a category 3 storm, the hurricane was certainly powerful enough to cause damage, but lacked the severity of other hurricanes throughout history before and since. Incorrectly estimating the true durability of the levees, the government failed to predict that the most of the city’s levees would give out, causing over three quarters of the city to completely flood (Cook, 2015). In some areas, the water was deep enough to completely submerge the first story of homes and buildings. The hurricane and the resulting impact ended up causing nearly 1,500 human deaths and doing over $100 billion of total damage (Haubert, 2015).
Unsurprisingly, the first criticisms of the response to Hurricane Katrina came before the eye of the storm hit New Orleans. The city’s mayor failed to provide a mandatory evacuation notice until less than a day before the hurricane was schedule to appear (Ancelet, Gaudet & Lindahl, 2013). Many people believe that the evacuation order was unnecessarily delayed and had thus manifested in a great deal of additional, unnecessary harm to the city’s residents. In fact, the order was so delayed that even some residents who wished to evacuate (particularly those with special travel needs) were unable to because of time and resource constraints (Ancelet, Gaudet & Lindahl, 2013).
Media coverage of the situation broadcast the effects of the poor government planning and response. News helicopters showed stranded families huddled together on their roofs to avoid the rising floodwater (Cook, 2015). Many stations broadcast the chaotic riots and looting that had manifested in the absence of any form of control or structure (Cook, 2015). As the nation watched the disaster unfold, it was clear there was a serious mismanagement of the situation that had allowed such conditions to occur.
Criticisms started pouring in from all over the country and even the world (Cook, 2015). The lack of resources and civil control had garnered a great deal of public attention. The first and primary target of the critiques was the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin. Nagin’s first misstep occurred in the evacuation phase, but it certainly didn’t end there. Nagin had also failed to request federal assistance in a timely manner which resulted in much-needed federal resources such as the National Guard being extremely delayed in deployment (Ancelet, Gaudet & Lindahl, 2013). However, even after the request was made, others blamed the federal government for the inadequacy of federal resources, something the federal government would later accuse Nagin for, claiming he failed to communicate the severity of the disaster (Haubert, 2015).
This placement of blame, however, did not save the federal government from criticism. Citizens and academic researchers alike would later state that the federal government failed to respond with immediacy, regardless of how soon after the event Nagin had requested help (Haubert, 2015). Furthermore, this level of government had failed to effectively coordinate its response with other related agencies that could have provided assistance in the form of manpower and resources. Inconsistent, incomplete communication resulted in poor cooperation between the Federal Emergency Management Agency (or FEMA) and the Department of Homeland Security (or DHS) (Haubert, 2015). Without an established line of leadership, resources went underutilized and there was a clear disconnect between the resources that were available and the resources that were utilized, despite the obvious need for these resources (Ancelet, Gaudet & Lindahl, 2013).
Nearly every clear leadership position with a hand in the response to Hurricane Katrina received blame from the general public. President Bush and Vice President Cheney were not immune to criticism, and were accused of protecting political interests over human life and wellbeing (Haubert, 2015).
While nearly all published literature on the subject is very quick to analyze what went wrong, there has been a clear lack of discussion in terms of what could have been different and how it would have compared to the actual response. The lack of coordination and communication among various agencies and levels of government ultimately resulted in a great deal of finger pointing, while trying to shirk blame for their own role. Given the fact that there was enough resources available within the government to respond to this situation, the issue clearly comes down to the inadequate actions of individuals during the disaster. Thus, it is pertinent and valuable to explore how complete cooperation and effective communicate would have impacted this disaster and its effects.
How would the impact of Hurricane Katrina have been different had the government and its related disaster management agencies practiced better communication, cooperation, and established disaster management protocol?
There is a wealth of published literature available on the topic of Hurricane Katrina, which makes gathering information about the disaster itself very simple and straightforward. Various sources analyze the disaster from different perspectives. Some examine the disaster from the perspective of a New Orleans citizen having to weather the hurricane without the assistance of the government while others look at the goings on within the government during this same time. Others still take the position of an outside looking in at the totality of the circumstances, primarily analyzing media representation of the event and how it affected overall perception of the disaster management capabilities of this country.
While information on the topic is extensive simply due to the amount of times it’s been written about and the number of angles taken in its exploration, there is a surprising lack of information regarding hypothetical scenarios of what would have happened were things done differently. That is not to say the topic is completely void of exploration in the published literature, only that it is incomplete. Several authors included in the literature review make claims such as the following quote from one of the sources: “Improved communication would have saved lives” (Ancelet, Gaudet & Lindahl, 2013). However, statements such as these lack specificity and do not lend themselves to a critical analysis of the full scope of the difference between the actual results and the results had the situation been handled ideally. Because of this lack of specificity and supporting information, these statements can mostly be classified as conjecture and lacking in value in the context of a meaningful discussion on this topic.
This is not to imply that the literature is lacking in information that informs this topic, however. Quite the contrary, the literature reviewed for this topic offered a great deal of valuable information that can be used to draw conclusions about the specific impact of disaster mismanagement in this scenario. There was a lot of data and discussion among the literature which could be used to extrapolate meaningful conclusions for this subject. For instance, while the death toll of Hurricane Katrina is officially listed as 1,577, it is unrealistic to say that all of these deaths could have been avoided (Haubert, 2015). However, one source lists the number of deaths that occurred as a result of flooding (drowning and otherwise) at around 250 (Tayler et al, 2015). Had government preparation and evacuation procedures been more effective at removing citizens from harm and accurately predicting the extent of floodwater risk when the hurricane made landfall, these deaths could have been avoided (Taylor et al, 2015). Other similar sentiments appear throughout the literature, linking severity and types of damage and destruction to various failings and inadequacies on behalf of the government and FEMA (Shaw & Krishnamurthy, 2009; Seidman, 2013).
Several important commonalities appear throughout all of the literature cited which lend support and context to the discussion at hand. The first and most notable theme is that the management of Hurricane Katrina was inadequate and that the government (namely local and federal) is largely to blame for their role in the impacts of Hurricane Katrina. This refers to not only the actual response phase of the disaster, but also in preparation. A great portion of the destruction and death caused by Hurricane Katrina resulted from the failure to predict that the levees would break and flood the city of New Orleans.
Another important topic at least alluded to throughout all of the literature is that the failings of the government are a result of poor coordination and a lack of communication, which ultimately translated to a poor hierarchical structure and ineffective leadership. All of the literature on Hurricane Katrina reviewed for this paper explored in various depths how insufficient information exchange and a lack of cooperation among various response parties resulted in greater harm in the wake of the hurricane.
Various sources gathered on the subject discuss specific aspects of the hurricane which offer further value in their detail. Cook’s publication focuses on the media’s role in Hurricane Katrina, not only in capturing and displaying the polarizing images that came to characterize the event, but also in guiding public opinion to place blame on the government and various disaster management agencies (2015). Taylor et al.’s book analyzes the hurricane from a macro perspective and discusses how it has shaped the collective perception of disaster and catastrophe (2015). Haubert’s writing focuses on what can be learned about the recovery phase of disaster management from Hurricane Katrina (2015). In fact, some of the most significant failings of the government and FEMA specifically occurred long after the flooding had subsided and the city had to focus on rebuilding (Haubert, 2015).
While most of the literature examined was very academic in the exploration of the various facets of this topic, some authors were subject to bias. Upon review, each piece of literature was personally rated with a bias rating on a scale of zero through ten, with zero meaning no discernable bias and ten meaning that the source is too biased to be of academic value. Sources with a single author had a higher average bias rating than sources with more than one author, presumably as multiple authors allowed for one another to check and eliminate one another’s bias in writing. Only one source received a rating of zero, as the author had purposefully not included any analysis or interpretation of the data, but simply offered facts and statistics from primary sources to let the reader draw conclusions for themselves. Any source with a bias rating over six was not included in this paper and any source with a bias rating over four was examined with increased rigor to determine if there was a possible skew on the data presented. All that being said, the determination of bias was itself, subject to bias, as I was the one giving the rating based on my subjective interpretation of the source material.
Both quantitative and qualitative data was collected for the purpose of this paper. Quantitative data was valuable in that it offered clear statistics and numerical information that showed the full scope and magnitude of the damage from Hurricane Katrina. Qualitative data was also collected for its value in drawing conclusions and providing meaningful interpretation of the events that unfolded. Both types of data helped inform and provide context for one another as well, leading to a more fully-featured synthesis of the information.
The sources gathered for synthesis were academic in tone, and gathered primarily through performing related keyword queries at a physical library. Specific keywords were used in various combinations to help turn up all available results on the topic. For example, a search was conducted as “katrina government new Orleans” as well as “government response hurricane.” Some sources were available at the physical library, and others required going through a request process to access the books available through the library chain but not at the physical branch.
The information gathered from these sources was broken down into several different groups. First information was broken down into how valuable it was for the purpose of this research. It was also classified as qualitative or quantitative. Another category was reserved to include suggestions and analysis by the various authors.
After this categorization, the information was further categorized on whether or not it directly related to identifying the gap between ideal results and actual results of Hurricane Katrina. A great deal of the information was useful, but did not directly relate to this topic. Other information was more applicable to such a discussion, and it is information from this category that will be discussed primarily in the analysis section.
For the sake of rigor, other individuals were asked to look over different categorization of information to determine whether or not the information was correctly grouped for use in application to this topic. Based on recommendations from this peer review, slight modifications were made to some of the groupings. Most notably, one piece of information was transferred from the category of being directly applicable to discussion of the gap to only being secondarily related.
Based on the information discussed thus far, several variables were identified in order to form a proper thesis which can be compared against the gathered information. The independent variables for the purpose of this thesis are effective communication and proper coordination to ensure no unnecessary overlap in duties and effective cooperation, relying on the expertise and resources of various emergency management agencies accordingly.
The dependent variable is the overall response to the hurricane, broken down into the monetary cost and the cost of human life that resulted from Hurricane Katrina. While there were undoubtedly other resource costs besides money that were incurred as a result of poor planning, response, and recovery, these are too abstract to truly quantify based on the data gathered from the available literature. This thesis
Based on these variables the thesis for this topic is as follows: Poor communication and coordination within the government (and related governmental response agencies) resulted in an additional cost of $80 billion and 500 lives lost.
The nature of this research question is one that requires exploration of established literature. Because the thesis and analysis itself are largely based on the literature reviewed, it would be nonsensical for the analysis and comparison of the thesis against the literature review to conflict with what established literature has stated. Furthermore, because of the breadth of literature on the subject, anything stated in this paper that conflicted with a serious theme or premise offered by these sources would need considerable proof to be grounded in logic. Despite the identified congruency between the literature and the thesis, however, the analysis still bears exploration in terms of how conclusions were reached and what ideas were extrapolated.
Before getting into the heart of the analysis, it is important to stress one of the major themes expressed in the literature. That is, all government failings during the response to Hurricane Katrina essentially are caused by either poor communication or poor coordination among different agencies, individuals, or levels of government. For instance, the failing of the levees may be considered a construction issue. However, had there been more in-depth communication about the potential risks of the levee and coordination between the team analyzing the levees and the government, the breaking of the levees could have been avoided (Haubert, 2015). This fact is best highlighted by the fact that all the parties involved in the analysis and conclusion phase of levee analysis prior to the hurricane placed blame on one another for either not communicating the necessary information or failing to act on the information communicated (Haubert, 2015).
In terms of monetary cost, it is first important to analyze the costs that would have manifested had the government and its agencies responded effectively. Perhaps the largest indicator of poor planning for this disaster was the breaking of the levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. The levees in New Orleans and the Louisiana coast were recently rebuilt to withstand any future storms, even if they are much more powerful than Hurricane Katrina. The price tag of the construction was around $14 billion (Haubert, 2015). While this seems like a steep price tag, one must consider the potential harm they are preventing, which was unceremoniously displayed during Katrina. Hurricane Katrina did over $100 billion worth of damage, most of which was concentrated in the city of New Orleans (Ancelet, Gaudet & Lindahl, 2013). While some of this cost was unpreventable as the hurricane would have done considerable damage even had the city not flooded, a majority of this cost could have been avoided had the levees withstood the hurricane (Ancelet, Guadet & Lindahl, 2013). Thus if the government had recognized the structural flaws in the levees, they could have reinforced them to prevent flooding. While the cost of fortifying these levees would not have been anywhere near the cost of rebuilding them, even with an assumed cost of $14 billion the levees would have paid for themselves several times over in terms of the damage they would have saved. Based on other data about the monetary damage caused by similarly powerful and large hurricanes in similarly structured areas of the country, it can be reasonably estimated that even taking into consideration a hypothetical $14 billion cost of levee fortification, the disaster could have realized net savings of $40 billion (Taylor et al, 2015).
On this same note, many sources analyzing the recovery of New Orleans estimate the damage that Hurricane Katrina caused economically is still being felt to this day. Some sources place the total economic loss that New Orleans has experienced over the past decade at well over $100 billion (Taylor et al, 2015; Cook, 2015). The primary cause of this economic loss was due to the flood damage that plagued businesses and homes (Taylor et al, 2015). Of course, while some economic loss was inevitable, the magnitude of such a loss because of the long-lasting damage of Hurricane Katrina’s flooding could have been reduced to under $20 billion, as a conservative estimate.
Of far more importance than the monetary costs incurred during and after the hurricane is the cost of human life that was lost during this situation. Deaths as a result from the flooding (drowning, exposure, and other causes) exceed 750 in number (Haubert, 2015). Even if the city had flooded, this amount could have been drastically reduced had proper evacuation and emergency rescue resources been utilized in a timely manner. With the proper coordination of the National Guard and the available transportation resources of the city, it is not unreasonable to state this number could have bene reduced to under 100 (Ancelet, Gaudet & Lindahl, 2013). Furthermore, many of the other deaths besides the ones directly attributed to flooding were avoidable. These come in the form of deaths that occurred in the civil unrest, health complications due to lack of resources, and deaths due to blunt force trauma during the hurricane (which could have been eliminated had there been proper evacuation procedures in place) (Haubert, 2015). Based on this analysis of information and compared with death tolls for similarly sized hurricanes, a conservative estimate of what the death toll could have been had the government acted ideally could have been under 200 (Haubert, 2015). This, as an estimate, may even be somewhat high. To put this number in perspective, Hurricane Patricia, a very recent hurricane which set the record as the strongest hurricane ever recorded, had a death toll of less than ten (Watson, 2015).
The information offered in this analysis and extrapolated from the literature sources does answer the research question. While it mostly supports the thesis, the exact numbers of the thesis seem to be overly conservative. After further study and research into the effect of this hurricane and hurricanes of a similar destructive capacity highlight the true magnitude of the disaster response’s shortcomings. The thesis wrongly predicted how many lives could have been spared and how much money could have been saved had the government and disaster response agencies been more effective in terms of communication and coordination. However, the spirit of the thesis was confirmed in terms of how influential a more communicative, cooperative response by the government would have been in the situation of Hurricane Katrina.
Now that the extent of the gap between the ideal and actual effects of Hurricane Katrina has been identified, there is a great deal of room for further research and policy changes. Research should explore the primary reasons for these coordination and communication failures. Some of the literature indicated that hubris was to blame for many of the breakdowns, with several leadership positions unwilling to admit the severity of their need for assistance (Haubert, 2015; Ancelet, Gaudet & Lindahl, 2013). This kind of attitude is largely due to internal governmental cultural politics, and must be eradicated immediately. Other research should seek to determine the most effective means of last minute evacuation in situations such as these where a whole city’s infrastructure becomes practically useless.
In terms of policy, legislators should seek to create intergovernmental protocols that are not so subject to becoming bogged down by bureaucracy. A city’s governor should not have to officially request assistance from the federal government before resources are provided, especially in cases such as this where the disaster is highly publicized and well-understood. Policy should also delineate more effective communication channels down the hierarchical line and across agency borders to ensure an open flow of information during times requiring high adaptability and absolute collaboration (Shaw & Krishnamurthy, 2009). Overall, disaster practitioners must see themselves as part of an interrelated system where everyone has a role to play (Shaw & Krishnamurthy, 2009). One level of government or one single agency trying to carry the burden of national disaster will only increase the harm therein.
Hurricane Katrina was a harmful disaster and a national tragedy that was made exponentially worse by the how it was prepared for, dealt with, and recovered from. While this case will serve as a prime example of how disasters should not be handled for decades to come, there is still a great deal of aspects of the situation that deserve further analysis for greater understanding of what went wrong and how to avoid repeating these mistakes. One can only hope that this country and the world at large do not soon forget the issues that plagued the disaster management of Hurricane Katrina and there will never again be a disaster that is magnified further by its response.
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