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Arjen Boin, Christer Brown, and James A. Richardson

The response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 has been widely described as a disaster in itself. Politicians, media, academics, survivors, and the public at large have slammed the federal, state, and local response to this mega disaster. According to the critics, the response was late, ineffective, politically charged, and even influenced by racist motives. But is this criticism true? Was the response really that poor? This article offers a framework for the analysis and assessment of a large-scale response to a mega disaster, which is then applied to the Katrina response (with an emphasis on New Orleans). The article identifies some failings (where the response could and should have been better) but also points to successes that somehow got lost in the politicized aftermath of this disaster. The article demonstrates the importance of a proper framework based on insights from crisis management studies.


Disproportionate policy response—which is composed of two core concepts, namely policy overreaction and under-reaction—is typically understood to be a lack of “fit” or balance between the costs of a public policy and the benefits deriving from this policy and/or between a policy’s ends and means. The disproportionate policy perspective introduces an intentional component into disproportionate response. It represents a conceptual turn whereby the concepts of policy overreaction and under-reaction are reentering the policy lexicon as types of intentional policy responses that are largely undertaken when political executives are vulnerable to voters. In times of crisis, disproportionate policy responses may be intentionally designed, implemented as planned, and sometimes successful in achieving policy goals and in delivering the political benefits sought by the political executives who design them. The premise underlying this argument is that crises vary in many respects, some of which may incentivize a deliberate crisis response by political executives that is either excessive, or lacking. For example, when crises occur at times of electoral vulnerability, the relevancy of policy instruments’ visibility, theatricality, spectacularity, and popularity may dominate the calculus of crisis management decisions. The same applies in cases where strong negative emotions emerge, and subsequently, political executives may opt to overwhelm hysterical populations cognitively and emotionally, trying to convince them that the policy system is viable.