Skip Navigation

Katrina and Institutional Failure

by Kim Smith, Associate Professor of Political Science 

Hurricane Katrina’s devastating impact on New Orleans may not have been wholly preventable, but it was surely worse than it might have been. Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, blamed “institutional failure” for the poor communication and coordination, as well as the uneven distribution of goods and services that hampered relief efforts. “It’s a bit like having a fire station with no fire engines because, in effect, the fire department has been de-funded and the fire engines have been sold off.”

Offenheiser isn’t the only one frustrated by the failure of governmental institutions in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. A flurry of inquiries, by the White House, Senate and House committees, has already produced a number of reports on “what went wrong.” Surprisingly, a consensus is emerging.

Everyone agrees, for example, that an event like Katrina wasn’t unexpected. We’ve known for several decades that a major hurricane could overwhelm the levee system and inundate New Orleans. FEMA had even funded an emergency exercise, “Hurricane Pam,” for federal, state and local officials in Louisiana. The exercise anticipated a major hurricane in the Gulf Coast region combined with a levee failure in New Orleans. Plans had been made, and by the time Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, staff from 40 government agencies were camped out in Baton Rouge, waiting to take action.

But the disaster plans quickly fell apart. Problems emerged in three major areas: evacuation, communications and supplies. First, although about one million people did manage to leave the city after the mayor suggested, and then ordered, evacuation, the evacuees experienced serious traffic delays. But that wasn’t the most serious problem: The evacuation plan did provide for the 120,000 people in New Orleans who didn’t own cars; they were supposed to go to central locations (like the Superdome) where busses would take them out of the city. However, the sheer scale of the flooding prevented many busses from arriving at their scheduled locations. As a result, thousands were stranded in the flooded city for days, with no supplies.

The disaster plan also anticipated some communication failure—but not the total failure that actually occurred. Once the hurricane hit, neither land lines nor cell phones operated. Many emergency personnel had battery-operated radios, but they were useful only as long as their batteries worked. There were very few portable generators available to provide additional power. This near-total communication breakdown accounts for much of the organizational chaos in New Orleans in the days following the hurricane. Finally, miscommunication among state and federal officials and red tape prevented supplies from being delivered to the city quickly.[1]

So what went wrong in New Orleans? Many commentators cite incompetence on the part of federal or local officials, including Michael Brown (FEMA director), Michael Chertoff (Director of Homeland Security), Mayor Ray Nagin, and Governor Kathleen Blanco. Others point to the organizational structure of the agencies involved in disaster relief. For example, a number of observers argue that putting FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security was a mistake. The DHS has a command-and-control structure and mentality that works better for dealing with security threats than it does for coordinating local disaster relief.[2]

The response to Katrina, however, points to deeper problems of social inequality and environmental management. Offenheiser, for example, noted that relief efforts were hampered by the lack of a strong infrastructure in many of the poorer communities––the effects of sustained poverty on those communities over time, resulting in the weakening of institutions in areas with the greatest need for social welfare. Susan Cutter describes how the resulting “geography of social vulnerability” affected the evacuation:

With no welfare check (the hurricane struck near the end of the month), little food, and no help from the city, state, or federal officials, the poor were forced to ride out the storm in their homes or move to the shelters of last resort. This is the enduring face of Hurricane Katrina—poor, black, single mothers, young, and old—struggling just to survive; options limited by the ineffectiveness of preparedness and the inadequacy of response.

Thus one lesson of Katrina is that we must address the social inequalities that leave some populations more vulnerable to those harms. But Hurricane Katrina also reveals the need for more effective long-term environmental management, to minimize the risks of such disasters. Of course, it’s difficult to plan for high-cost, low-probability events like a level-5 hurricane hitting a major city. But policy makers for some time have been urged to upgrade New Orleans’ levee system and take steps to protect the eroding wetlands, both of which might have reduced the damage from Katrina. The failure to take these steps reflects the short-term thinking characteristic of most policy making; our political institutions are not designed to reward policy makers for taking actions that will pay off, if at all, several decades down the road.

Indeed, Carleton student Steve Meisburger argues persuasively that we need a radically different institutional approach to flood protection in the Mississippi delta. Flood protection, he notes, is a complex issue, involving ever-changing environmental, technological, social, and political concerns. Therefore, the solution should not rely on the ability of engineers to get it right the first time. Adaptation should be built into an institutional design that allows for continual review and analysis by the scientific community. We need to encourage experimentation and to establish redundant systems, emphasizing flood reduction over flood prevention—including incorporating land-use and wetlands preservation as elements of our environmental management strategy. He also argues in favor of polycentric approaches that involve many communities cooperating with each other, instead of a centralized, top-down approach that diminishes opportunities for communication and civic engagement.

In sum, Katrina points to the need to repair not only our disaster relief system but our fabric of social support and our approach to environmental management generally. We need more resilient and responsive institutions—institutions designed to channel our collective energies toward maintaining our home in a complex and dynamic world.


[1] “Disaster Sociologists Study What Went Wrong in the Response to the Hurricanes,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Thurs. Sept 29, 2005.

[2] James Hanley, “Institutional Failure in the Response to Hurricane Katrina,” Institute for Social Policy and Understanding Policy Brief #12, Feb. 2006.