Hurricane Katrina: Remembering the Federal Failures

Ten years ago this week, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast and generated a huge disaster. The storm flooded New Orleans, killed more than 1,800 people, and caused $100 billion in property damage. The storm’s damage was greatly exacerbated by the failures of Congress, the Bush administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Weather forecasters warned government officials about Katrina’s approach, so they should have been ready for it. But they were not, and Katrina exposed major failures in America’s disaster preparedness and response systems.

Here are some of the federal failures:

  • Confusion. Key federal officials were not proactive, they gave faulty information to the public, and they were not adequately trained. The 2006 bipartisan House report on the disaster, A Failure of Initiative, said, “federal agencies … had varying degrees of unfamiliarity with their roles and responsibilities under the National Response Plan and National Incident Management System.” The report found that there was “general confusion over mission assignments, deployments, and command structure.” One reason was that FEMA’s executive suites were full of political appointees with little disaster experience.
  • Failure to Learn. The government was unprepared for Katrina even though it was widely known that such a hurricane was probable, and weather forecasters had accurately predicted the advance of Katrina before landfall. A year prior to Katrina, government agencies had performed a simulation exercise—“Hurricane Pam”—for a hurricane of similar strength hitting New Orleans, but governments “failed to learn important lessons” from the exercise.
  • Communications Breakdown. The House report found that there was “a complete breakdown in communications that paralyzed command and control and made situational awareness murky at best.” Agencies could not communicate with each other due to equipment failures and a lack of system interoperability. These problems occurred despite the fact that FEMA and predecessor agencies have been giving grants to state and local governments for emergency communication systems since the beginning of the Cold War.
  • Supply Failures. Some emergency supplies were prepositioned before the storm, but there was nowhere near enough. In places that desperately needed help, such as the New Orleans Superdome, it took days to deliver medical supplies. FEMA also wasted huge amounts of supplies. It delivered millions of pounds of ice to holding centers in cities far away from the Gulf Coast. FEMA sent truckers carrying ice on wild goose chases across the country. Two years after the storm, the agency ended up throwing out $100 million of unused ice. FEMA also paid for 25,000 mobile homes costing $900 million, but they went virtually unused because of FEMA’s own regulations that such homes cannot be used on flood plains, which is where most Katrina victims lived.
  • Indecision. Indecision plagued government leaders in the deployment of supplies, in medical personnel decisions, and in other areas. Even the grisly task of body recovery after Katrina was slow and confused. Bodies went uncollected for days “as state and federal officials remained indecisive on a body recovery plan.” FEMA waited for Louisiana to make decisions about bodies, but the governor of Louisiana blamed FEMA’s tardiness in making a deal with a contractor. Similar problems of too many bureaucratic cooks in the kitchen hampered decisionmaking in areas, such as organizing evacuations and providing law enforcement resources to Louisiana.
  • Fraud and Abuse. Free-flowing Katrina aid unleased a torrent of fraud and abuse. Federal auditors estimated that $1 billion or more in aid payments for individuals were invalid. Other estimates put the waste at $2 billion. An Associated Press analysis found that “people claiming to live in as many as 162,750 homes that did not exist before the storms may have improperly received as much as $1 billion in tax money.” The New York Times concluded: “Among the many superlatives associated with Hurricane Katrina can now be added this one: it produced one of the most extraordinary displays of scams, schemes and stupefying bureaucratic bungles in modern history, costing taxpayers up to $2 billion.”

 Perhaps the most appalling aspect of the federal response to Katrina was that officials obstructed private relief efforts, as these examples illustrate:

  • FEMA repeatedly blocked the delivery of emergency supplies ordered by the Methodist Hospital in New Orleans from its out-of-state headquarters.
  • FEMA turned away doctors volunteering their services at emergency facilities. Methodist’s sister hospital, Chalmette, for example, sent doctors to the emergency facility set up at New Orleans Airport to offer their services, but they were turned away because their names were not in a government database.
  • Private medical air transport companies played an important role in evacuations after Katrina. But FEMA officials provided no help in coordinating these services, and they actively blocked some of the flights.
  • FEMA “refused Amtrak’s offer to evacuate victims, and wouldn’t return calls from the American Bus Association.” Indeed, both the Motorcoach Association and the American Bus Association could not get through to anyone at FEMA to offer help for evacuations.   
  • The Red Cross was denied access to the Superdome in New Orleans to deliver emergency supplies.
  • FEMA turned away trucks from Walmart loaded with water for New Orleans, and it prevented the Coast Guard from delivering diesel fuel.
  • Offers of emergency supplies, vehicles, and specialized equipment from other nations were caught in federal red tape and shipments were delayed.

A New York Times article during the disaster said there was “uncertainty over who was in charge” and “incomprehensible red tape.” Katrina made clear that the government’s emergency response system is far too complex. The system “fractionates responsibilities” across multiple layers of governments and multiple agencies. There are 29 different federal agencies that have a role in disaster relief under the National Response Framework. These agencies are involved in 15 different cross-agency “Emergency Support Functions.” There is also a National Incident Management System, a National Disaster Recovery Framework, and numerous other “national” structures that are supposed to coordinate action.

But such centralization is giant mistake—you don’t get efficiency, learning, innovation, and quality performance from top-down command. Indeed, increased centralization and complexity is a disease of modern American government that is causing endemic failure. I discuss this problem in my new study, Why the Federal Government Fails.

All that said, a few government agencies performed very well during Katrina. The Coast Guard rapidly deployed 4,000 service members, 37 aircraft, and 78 boats to the area. The agency rescued more than 30,000 people in the days following the storm. Unlike FEMA, the Coast Guard has decentralized operations and relies much more on local decisionmaking. Coast Guard employees live in local communities, and so they were able to make decisions rapidly during the crisis. Coast Guard officers have an “ethos of independent action,” which was crucial during Katrina when communications systems were down.

The National Guard under state command also played a crucial role during Katrina. The Guard helped reestablish law and order in New Orleans after the local police force was devastated. A key strength of the National Guard is the existence of cross-state agreements for sharing personnel and assets. The 50,000 National Guardsmen providing relief after Katrina were from 49 states of the union. They “participated in every aspect of emergency response, from medical care to law enforcement and debris removal, and were considered invaluable by Louisiana and Mississippi officials.”

The private sector also played a large and effective role during Katrina. The Red Cross had 239 shelters ready to house 40,000 evacuees on the day Katrina made landfall. The shelters expanded to hold a peak of 146,000 evacuees, and the organization served 52 million meals and snacks to hurricane survivors. The Salvation Army housed a peak of 30,000 evacuees in 225 shelters.

For-profit businesses were also very important in the Katrina response. Insurance companies sent teams to affected areas to accelerate pay-outs to covered homeowners and to offer loans. Electric utilities rushed extra crews to disaster areas. During disasters, utilities have standing agreements with nearby utilities for mutual aid. Southern Company was well-prepared for Katrina based on its disaster plans and a large-scale prepositioning of people and assets.

Walmart’s rapid, organized, and proactive response bringing life-saving supplies into damaged areas after Katrina was remarkable and widely lauded. Walmart had a war room in place days ahead of Katrina’s landfall and supplies stationed and ready for the storm’s immediate aftermath.

Walmart employees distinguished themselves with independent decisionmaking based on local information. Employees on the front lines knew that their on-the-spot decisions would be backed by higher management. The Washington Post reported that within days, Walmart delivered “an unrivaled $20 million in cash donations, 1,500 truckloads of free merchandise, food for 100,000 meals and the promise of a job for every one of its displaced workers.”

Home Depot also earned praise for its rapid and efficient relief efforts during Katrina. Such companies provided many supplies free to needy people in the affected region. Businesses have strong incentives to aid the public when disasters strike, both from a charitable desire and in order to gain respect and loyal customers over the long term.

In a study on FEMA, I concluded that state and local governments and the private sector are in a much better position than the federal government to handle most disasters. Federal bureaucracies are poor at trying to centrally manage large and complex problems. FEMA is no exception: it is often slow, risk averse, subservient to politics, and does not have the needed local knowledge. First responders and their assets are mainly owned and managed locally, and so a bottom-up structure makes sense. FEMA intervention slows down state, local, and private responses because of all the extra bureaucracy. 

By cutting the federal role, we would reduce the ambiguity in the disaster response system. As we saw with Katrina, decisionmaking was hampered by the uncertainty over bureaucratic rules and responsibilities. When you read homeland security reports, it is striking the huge number of goals, plans, strategies, frameworks, agencies, systems, directives, offices, and other structures that are supposed to come together during disasters. A better approach than top-down planning would be to cut the federal role and let state, local, and private institutions perform their specialized functions and coordinate among themselves.

For cites to all facts and quotes used in this piece, see this study.

For more about federal government failure, see this study.