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.