Ten years ago tonight, the National Weather Service issued a dire warning: a major hurricane was bearing down on New Orleans and "devastating damage" was expected. Hurricane Katrina ended up being the deadliest hurricane to hit the United States in more than 75 years and became the costliest hurricane in history, in terms of monetary damage. The effects — both physical and social — of the storm are still being felt today.
But as deadly as the storm was, many deaths and much suffering occurred in the days after landfall as a near-total breakdown of public safety happened because officials, in various cases, either deferred making decisions about who was in charge or took charge without considering they were the best ones to take such actions.
Summary: When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans a decade ago, a significant breakdown in intergovernmental cooperation contributed to a humanitarian disaster. The most-vulnerable part of New Orleans’ population suffered a failure of the most-basic social services or even death because they relied on an unprepared local government to preserve their well-being. A simple pre-existing arrangement to defer traditional municipal responsibilities to those best suited to implement them might have mitigated the City of New Orleans’ 2005 failures and may be key to preventing their recurrence in a similar disaster.
Issues: While the physical failure of the levees during Katrina was itself a great catastrophe, perhaps a greater Katrina-related tragedy was the breakdown of responsibility that happened as the hurricane struck southern Louisiana. Thousands of people — disproportionally poor and African-American — were left behind, either in practically lawless conditions at shelters or fending for themselves in a flooded metropolis while various government agencies tried to determine who exactly was responsible for planning their rescue and provision. This governmental paralysis was all the more disappointing because it was foreseen by the City’s own 1990 Master Plan, which admitted that, “There are turf wars between cities, between parishes, even between arms of city government … The result is confusion, fragmented services, or worse, duplication of effort” (City of New Orleans, 2009).
This confusion was profoundly evident as Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Examples include: it took three days for the area’s mass transit agencies to officially be ordered to provide buses for evacuation (Lalwani, 2007); paperwork to deploy federal troops in the disaster area was not issued until three days after the storm hit New Orleans; and there was a delay in the Federal Government’s sending aid because local officials had not yet officially declared a disaster — in fact, FEMA director Michael Brown even stated that it was “critical” for outside emergency responders to “remain in their jurisdictions” until requested by local authorities (Wolfe 2009). The City of New Orleans and the State of Louisiana both proved unable to take adequate control of the vast relief undertaking while waiting for federal help.
It is not surprising that some confusion arose as to what level of government had what level of responsibility. Multiple participants at different governmental levels have made the tasks of public administration and management more demanding and more difficult (Wright, 1990). That said, some scholars suggest that an inability for local governments to recognize the need to expand beyond existing social and political structures could even be construed as a form of “administrative evil.” Those in the public service who either declined outside help or did not set up structures necessary to process it seem to have found themselves with a lack of historical consciousness because their technical rationality led to a compartmentalization of knowledge and lack of context (Adams and Balfour, 2009). Indeed, they demonstrated“ a model of professionalism that drives out ethics and moral reasoning [and] offers all too fertile soil for administrative evil to emerge” (p. 38).
Recommendations: Higher storm surges and more-powerful hurricanes are a virtual certainty with climate change and New Orleans must be prepared for another storm (Walsh, 2009). While solving the technical issues that led to levee collapses is best left to the engineering experts, on a human level the City of New Orleans can take a bold step toward saving lives simply by conceding it might not be the best entity to protect its own citizens in a disaster situation and letting a higher-level governmental entity take the reins. This would not be an admission of incompetence, but rather one of compassion consistent with good government. Woodrow Wilson, well before he became president, pointed out that proper distribution of constitutional authority involved finding the best people to do the job and clearly making them accountable for doing so: “To be efficient it must discover the simplest arrangements by which responsibility can be unmistakably fixed upon officials; the best way of dividing authority without hampering it, and responsibility without obscuring it” (Wilson, 1886). The City of New Orleans must be prepared to find this “simplest arrangement.”
Despite its troubles in 2005, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, “the agency with the greatest experience in managing disasters” (Lalwani, 2007), is probably the only agency with the wide-ranging experience and resources to coordinate a large-scale local, state and federal response. It alone has the legislated clout to gather together the funds, out-of-state manpower and federal resources that a disaster like Katrina demands. It is recommended that the City of New Orleans in the future cede its resources to FEMA before the need is apparent. FEMA, in turn, will need to delegate responsibility to the various resources at its disposal as a crisis develops. This arrangement will seem suspicious to some, as such bold steps are unexpected in a government structure where “muddling through” — changing things incrementally in tiny steps (Lindblom, 1959) — is seen as de rigueur. While some affected stakeholder may interpret this step as New Orleans “passing the buck,” the city has a higher responsibility to provide the best service to its citizens, and Katrina showed another agency might be better suited to do so than the City of New Orleans itself.