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date: 28 November 2020

Analyzing Mega-Disaster Hurricane Katrinafree

  • Arjen Boin, Arjen BoinDepartment of Public Institutions and Governance, Leiden University
  • Christer BrownChrister BrownEuropean Commission
  •  and James A. RichardsonJames A. RichardsonPublic Administration Institute, Louisiana State University


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.

Introduction: Assessing the Response to Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina reached the Louisiana coast in the early morning of Monday, August 29, 2005. Besides Louisiana, the hurricane caused widespread flooding and wind damage in Alabama and Mississippi. The storm killed around 1,500 people (estimates vary) across the region. The damage to homes, critical infrastructures, and the environment was immense and in some respects even historic. Hurricane Katrina was by all accounts a mega disaster: the single most expensive disasters in the United States.

Katrina was also a unique disaster, as it caused a large area of a major city—New Orleans—to flood up to its rooftops. Whipped up by hurricane winds, floodwaters broke through multiple levees that had traditionally protected low-lying New Orleans from its watery surroundings. The floodwaters took the people of New Orleans—those who had not evacuated ahead of the storm—by surprise, drowning hundreds in their homes. This necessitated a large-scale rescue effort: survivors had to be plucked from tree tops and roofs; they were then evacuated from the inundated city.

Many questions were raised after the disaster. Why were people left stranded in hospitals and nursing homes? Why were survivors, congregating in large masses in the city’s largest indoor stadium, the Superdome, the Convention Center, on highway overpasses and in the dry streets of New Orleans, not fed and moved to safety more quickly? Why was New Orleans not better safeguarded against the looting, rapes, and murders that the media breathlessly (and in a great many cases incorrectly) reported on throughout the crisis? As the mayor of New Orleans, the governor of Louisiana, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the president of the United States started criticizing the response and each other, it was not at all clear who exactly was in charge of the response.

The performance of many response organizations and their leaders was widely and deeply criticized by politicians, pundits, and the public. For instance, the U.S. Senate’s report, A Nation Still Unprepared, charged that “long-term warnings went unheeded and government officials neglected their duties to prepare for a forewarned catastrophe” (Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental affairs, 2006; Executive Summary). The report put forward by the Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a, p. x) in the U.S. House of Representatives, A Failure of Initiative, did not pull any punches either; it saw in the Katrina response “a litany of mistakes, misjudgments, lapses, and absurdities all cascading together.” The report went on to argue that “officials at all levels seemed to be waiting for the disaster that fit their plans, rather than planning and building scalable capacities to meet whatever Mother Nature threw at them” (Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 2).

This article argues that this negative assessment is both incomplete and unfair. It is incomplete because it does not take into account the many things that in fact went very well during the response. For instance, the pre-storm, car-based evacuation of New Orleans was an unprecedented success: it was the first time that residents could leave without having to spend endless hours in traffic jams (a success that did not extend to those residents who did not have access to a car). Moreover, the post-landfall search and rescue effort succeeded in quickly moving many people out of harm’s way. The prevailing critique of the response is unfair because it fails to account for the trying conditions under which the response took place; it is, after all, very hard to rescue people from a major city that is almost completely flooded.

This article offers an analysis of a very complex disaster. It assumes that—unless proven otherwise—officials did the best that they could to save lives. The analysis is based on the normative assumption that an effective and legitimate response to a crisis or disaster requires government to be prepared to execute a set of tasks that can be summarized as follows:

be prepared to act, meaning that actors at the local, state, and national level know what is expected of them and spring into action to prevent as much disruption and damage as possible;

make sense of the unfolding situation, which entails collecting, analyzing, and sharing critical information in order to create a shared picture of the situation;

collaborate across horizontal and vertical borders to save lives and limit the damage;

formulate and communicate a convincing and enabling narrative that explains what has happened and what is being done in order to minimize the consequences of the crisis.

(For a theoretical foundation, see Boin, ‘t Hart, Stern, & Sundelius,2016.)

This framework is applied to analyze the response to Hurricane Katrina. The way these tasks were performed is studied in an attempt to understand what went wrong and what went well. The empirical evidence is mainly drawn from an extensive reading of official investigative and after-action reports, academic books, and articles, and the extensive media reporting during and after the disaster. A much more complete picture and a detailed explanation of the research method used here is presented in the book from which this article is drawn (see Boin, Brown, & Richardson, 2019). A cognitive-institutional process tracing methodology developed by researchers at the National Center for Crisis Research and Training (CRiSMART) at the Swedish National Defense University in Stockholm was used in collecting empirical data concerning the acute phase of the response to Katrina.

Well-Prepared for the Wrong Disaster

The Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a, p. 137) later wrote that “perhaps the single most important question [that it] struggled to answer is why the federal response did not adequately anticipate the consequences of Katrina striking New Orleans.” As the Committee’s chairman, Tom Davis, argued at the time, “that’s probably the most painful thing about Katrina, and the tragic loss of life: the foreseeability of it all” (Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 80). This view was reflected in the Committee’s (2006a, p. xi) findings, which flatly stated that “this crisis was not only predictable, it was predicted [and the] government failed because it did not learn from past experiences.”

Why didn’t anyone see this disaster coming? Research indicates that predicting super disasters like Katrina is more difficult than it typically seems in hindsight (Clarke, 1999; Tetlock, 2005). It is fairly easy to offer general and evidence-based scenarios about a potential threat (“San Francisco is due for a big earthquake” is an example of such a scenario). Those scenarios existed for New Orleans. But it is quite something else to predict exactly when and how a disaster will happen, or, in this case, which hurricane will trigger a mega disaster. This is especially true for unique events for which no statistical base rate exists (so-called black swans; Taleb, 2007).

These scenarios may well have implications for assessing prevention efforts, but implications for crisis preparation are harder to assess. The question is what can be reasonably expected from government agencies responsible for crisis and disaster management. In thinking about an answer to this question, this article formulates three “fair” expectations to guide the analysis of government performance in the period leading up to Katrina.

Did the Authorities Willfully Ignore Clear and Unambiguous Signals of an Impending Disaster?

There certainly were plenty of warnings that New Orleans faced a problem. In the years preceding Katrina, Popular Mechanics, Scientific American, Civil Engineering Magazine, the Natural Hazards Observer, the American Prospect, and the Philadelphia Enquirer highlighted the city’s vulnerability to hurricanes, some in more sensationalistic terms than others. Sample headlines included “New Orleans is sinking” and “New Orleans faces doomsday scenario” (Berger, 2001; Wilson, 2001). After Katrina, many reports pointed out that government had in fact practiced dealing with just such a scenario: Hurricane Pam was trotted out as the smoking gun, proving that government knew of the risk.

Hurricane Pam was the centerpiece of a fictitious disaster scenario designed by disaster management consultancy IEM, then based in Baton Rouge. In the summer of 2004, local and state authorities in Louisiana worked with FEMA to explore the consequences of the scenario. The aim was to assess and improve the general state of preparedness for a hurricane strike on the region. The participants used Pam to create a workable regional plan, what came to be known as the Southeast Louisiana Catastrophic Hurricane Plan.

The Pam scenario certainly bore some resemblance to Katrina. Pam was a big hurricane, just like Katrina. It even followed the same storm track. So when it was revealed after Katrina that officials had in fact “exercised” Pam, the reactions were understandably incredulous. How could the authorities not have been more prepared? Critics charged that government, and especially FEMA, had not learned, or did not act on the lessons learned, from the Pam exercise.

This view is too simple, however. First of all, Pam was a planning exercise, not a simulation. This is more than a semantic difference. Officials typically use interactive disaster simulations to practice decision-making, cooperation, and coordination under stress. A simulation helps them test their plans, skills, and capacities. This was not the purpose of Pam. There was no plan that officials wanted to test. They were not in a position to “practice.” Rather, they were trying, for the first time, to develop a set of plans that would hold up in the face of a large-scale hurricane. In other words, the Pam exercise aimed to help officials address an obvious planning deficit (Office of the Inspector General, 2006, p. 124; Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 81).

Second, many lessons were learned thanks to the Pam event. Numerous action plans ranging from debris removal, to sheltering, to search and rescue were developed. State transportation officials used the lessons learned from both previous hurricanes and the Pam exercise in revising Louisiana’s evacuation plan (Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 82). The Evacuation Liaison Team concept was developed, which worked well during Katrina. The contingency plan for the medical component, almost complete when Katrina made landfall, proved invaluable to the response effort (Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 83). The search and rescue response orchestrated by Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries teams was organized along the lines of a model developed during the Pam exercise (Committee on Homeland Security, 2006, p. 8).

Thinking about what may happen differs from predicting what will happen when. While there were plenty of general warnings in the years before Katrina that New Orleans was vulnerable to massive flooding on the heels of a hurricane, there were very few people who foresaw and warned about the Katrina scenario. Some of the actual warnings did not surface until a few short hours before Katrina made landfall when it was too late to do anything that may have mitigated the storm’s effects in any significant way.

Did Authorities Take Adequate Preparatory Measures in Light of What Could Have Reasonably Been Foreseen or Expected?

Even though authorities did not recognize a super disaster in the making, they did take Hurricane Katrina very seriously. There was no downplaying or ignoring the potential effects of the hurricane. On the contrary, authorities warned one another and their constituents that a very dangerous storm was coming and they acted accordingly.

Major preparations were launched days before landfall. The city’s emergency operations center in the City Hall complex was activated. Louisiana’s governor, Kathleen Blanco, had by mid-afternoon on Friday canceled a planned trip to Atlanta. That same evening, she declared a statewide state of emergency (a full 24 hours before her counterpart in Mississippi), and issued a formal request for a federal declaration of emergency for Louisiana. State and local agencies placed critical personnel on standby and canceled all scheduled leave (Committee on Homeland Security, 2007a). Blanco authorized the immediate mobilization of 2,000 Louisiana National Guard troops to support the evacuation of southeastern Louisiana, including New Orleans (Committee on Homeland Security, 2007b, p. 44). By Saturday, an additional 2,000 troops were mobilized and all three of the state’s National Guard joint operations centers went into 24-hour operation (Committee on Homeland Security, 2006, p. 150; 2007b, p. 44).

Later claims that senior FEMA officials underplayed the threat facing New Orleans are not defensible on the basis of available information. The FEMA director, Michael Brown, declared on Friday that he had “learned over the past four and a half, five years, to go with my gut on a lot of things, and my gut hurts on this one” (Cooper & Block, 2006, p. 102). During a conference call with FEMA staff and state officials that evening, he admonished those present and FEMA staff in particular to “lean forward as much as possible [as] this is our chance to really show what we can do” (Cooper & Block, 2006, pp. 101–102). These were more than just words: House investigators found FEMA’s pre-landfall staging activities to have been unprecedented in scale (Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 59).

The state’s pre-storm efforts were just as substantial (Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, pp. 59, 62, 64). In Louisiana, the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries moved supplies, high-water vehicles, and boats to Jackson Barracks, a National Guard facility located in central New Orleans (a site that had never previously flooded during a hurricane). Additional kit and around 200 agents were pre-positioned in a ring just outside New Orleans (Brinkley, 2006, p. 116). Meanwhile, officials with the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness in Baton Rouge worked to secure additional boats through FEMA and directly from other states (Committee of Homeland Security, 2006, p. 597; 2007c). Called-up Guard personnel converged on New Orleans during the weekend to assist with law enforcement, traffic control, and shelter support. Other emergency responders were standing by to begin search and rescue as soon as the storm had passed (White House, 2006, p. 35).

The city of New Orleans completed its preparations. Many local institutions—universities, the Audubon Zoo, the Aquarium, the D-Day Museum—were all closed in advance of landfall (Brinkley, 2006, pp. 40–41). Those who had not evacuated were offered shelter at the Superdome, where approximately 300 city and state officials were setting up shelter facilities. Several hundred National Guard troops and police were on site to provide security (Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006b, p. 89; Brinkley, 2006, p. 78, mentions 900 guardsmen).

Did the Authorities Warn People in a Timely Fashion and Try to Move Them out of Harm’s Way?

After the storm, critics blamed government at large for the large number of deaths and the desperation that was witnessed in the city. By the critics’ telling, the authorities had failed to warn local residents of the approaching storm and to evacuate those who were unable to make it out of the city by themselves. In hindsight, there is no doubt that a more complete evacuation would have saved more lives. It is also clear, however, that local and state government did try to warn residents and move them out of the city.

On Saturday, Governor Blanco and local officials including Mayor Nagin held a joint news conference in New Orleans to warn people of the approaching storm. Nagin explained that Katrina “is the real deal” with “New Orleans . . . definitely the target” (McQuaid & Schleifstein, 2006, p. 172). Both the mayor and the president of neighboring Jefferson Parish subsequently issued voluntary evacuation orders to their constituents. All through Saturday evening, officials at every level, including the federal level, took to the radio and television to urge residents to leave the city as soon as possible (Committee on Homeland Security, 2006, p. 5; 2007d, p. 139; Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 109). Behind the scenes, they worked to ensure that their message was being carried through other, more informal channels (Brinkley, 2006, p. 40; Committee on Homeland Security, 2007d, p. 139). For instance, Governor Blanco and her staff contacted clergy throughout Saturday night and into early Sunday morning, asking them to urge their parishioners to evacuate immediately (White House, 2006, p. 26).

Early on Saturday evening, Mayor Nagin reappeared before the television cameras in New Orleans, the governor by his side. Nagin declared a state of emergency and signaled that he would issue a mandatory evacuation order the following day. The following morning, he did just that, the first time ever in the city’s long history. Governor Blanco traveled from Baton Rouge to New Orleans again on Sunday for another press conference with Mayor Nagin, who called Katrina “a once-in-a-lifetime event.” For her part, Blanco stated that “this storm is bigger than anything we have dealt with before” (Treaster & Goodnough, 2005). President Bush in a televised speech urged people to heed these calls to leave (Treaster & Goodnough, 2005).

As is often the case in the Gulf Coast states, many people seemed unconcerned about the impending storm and unmoved by officials’ warnings. Others, however, lacked the means to leave on their own (White House, 2006, p. 25). Ultimately, tens of thousands remained in New Orleans prior to landfall. Some took up the offer to shelter at the Superdome, while others hunkered down in their homes or took to the streets, where they defiantly hosted hurricane parties, a longstanding local tradition (Brinkley, 2006, p. 60).

Well Prepared for a “Normal” Disaster

Given the evidence, it would be difficult to argue that the authorities did not take Katrina seriously, that they failed to prepare, or that they did not warn the local population. These preparatory efforts included nearly all the activities one would expect. There was a well-executed evacuation for those with their own vehicles; FEMA had pre-staged large amounts of resources; Louisiana officials and the U.S. Coast Guard had pre-positioned boats, helicopters, and other lifesaving equipment; shelters were organized.

After the storm, some people would claim that FEMA did not do enough in the face of “the Big One.” There is some truth to this observation. After all, FEMA was following its ordinary routine—for a large-scale hurricane, that is. During the 2004 hurricane season, four major hurricanes and one tropical storm hit Florida. Both the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and FEMA received good marks for its response. And indeed, 2005 had already offered up a number of major storms that FEMA had managed competently, as Katrina was preceded by Hurricanes Cindy (category 1), Dennis (category 4), Emily (category 5), and Irene (category 2). While Katrina was not the first storm of the season, it was the one that officials found most alarming. For this reason, the agency made sure to pre-position an unprecedented number of resources in areas close to the anticipated disaster zone (Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 59).

Initially at least, preparations in New Orleans followed a business-as-usual approach. However, when it began to dawn on local authorities that Katrina was not a “usual” hurricane, they quickly ramped up their preparations, while at the same time trying to move more people out of their houses, away from the city, or at the very least into the Superdome. By all accounts, New Orleans had shifted to the highest gear ever, at least when compared with how the city had met previous hurricanes.

While New Orleans may have been primed for disaster, it was anticipating a very strong hurricane, not a flood catastrophe. The director for the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Public Safety would later explain: “we’re thinking [48] hours and this’ll all be over. Nobody’s going to starve by then” (Cooper & Block, 2006, p. 119). The truth of the matter is that nobody did. The lesson here—lost to many—is that pre-landfall preparations on the part of government, albeit for a powerful hurricane, saved many lives. What would have happened if the authorities had been as unprepared, uninterested, and uncaring as they were made out to be after the fact? Had there been no warnings, no evacuation, no pre-staging of boats and medical teams, the 60,000 deaths described in the Pam scenario may well have become reality.

Fragmented Sense-Making

In a disaster, information is critically important to effective crisis management: if decision-makers do not have a shared and accurate picture of the situation, it will be difficult if not impossible to make informed decisions and communicate effectively with officials, the political level and the public. Crisis managers must collect information, analyze it, establish a picture of the situation, share that picture, and then update it as new information becomes available (Weick, 1995). They must do this quickly and accurately, working together with all response organizations to understand the evolving situation. This is called joint sense-making.

The various official inquiries into Katrina found the sense-making performance of government at every level wanting in one way or another. At DHS, “early situational awareness was poor, a problem that should have been corrected following identical damage assessment challenges during Hurricane Andrew” (Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 224). Similarly, the biggest challenge for the U.S. military’s Northern Command (NORTHCOM) was “gaining and maintaining situational awareness as to the catastrophic disaster” (Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 224). The White House and FEMA, as well as authorities in New Orleans and Baton Rouge encountered similar problems. Simply put, everyone found it difficult to get a handle on what was going on in and around New Orleans after landfall.

Looking back, it is clear that all of the puzzle pieces needed to form an accurate picture of the situation “on the ground” in New Orleans were available by Monday evening, approximately 12 hours after landfall (Boin et al., 2019; Appendix I). Hundreds of 911 calls described people stranded on rooftops and clinging to trees. Throughout the morning and into the afternoon on Monday, the National Weather Service offices, first responders in New Orleans, Coast Guard personnel, and the state’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness all released reports suggesting (but not confirming) that at least some levees had been breached and that parts of New Orleans were underwater.

Yet, the record shows that it took a remarkably long time to recognize that the city of New Orleans was flooding and that those remaining in the city were in immediate need of help. Most federal officials were slow to grasp the extent of the devastation caused by Katrina; the media were not much faster. In the days that followed, officials continued to be surprised by new and adverse developments.

Sense-making in times of crisis is much harder than we often imagine. Crises are characterized by deep uncertainty (Rosenthal, Boin, & Comfort, 2001; Rosenthal, Charles, & ‘t Hart, 1989). And as they evolve, there are often negative surprises. It is therefore critical that accurate information is extracted from a stream of otherwise irrelevant, ambiguous or false information. But key information is hard to locate. For instance, it takes precious time to survey a disaster site, collect critical information, summarize that information in an understandable way, and get the right information to the right person in the chain in the most appropriate form. Moreover, first responders, the proverbial boots on the ground, have other priorities in the midst of crisis; writing a solid situation report (“sitrep”) tends to be the last thing on their minds when lives are in danger. While disaster plans often specify how critical information should travel through bureaucratic layers, this rarely happens as envisioned in practice. A mega disaster makes this task all the more difficult.

Breakdowns in communication—a common feature of disasters everywhere—undermined officials’ ability to quickly assess and reassess the situation. On the day of landfall, it was nigh on impossible to receive authoritative reporting directly from the field due to widespread disruptions to communications infrastructure in the region. According to House investigators, the absence of reliable means of communication delayed “the delivery of direct assistance where it was most needed, and it hindered the ability to forward requests to state or federal agencies that might have been able to help” (Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 168). It is no wonder, then, that analysts in crisis centers far removed from the scene needed more time to get a handle on the enormity of events.

It was later estimated that FEMA’s effectiveness in the city was reduced by as much as 90% on account of communications issues. They were hardly alone, though; even reporters found it hard to get their stories out. As late as Tuesday morning, a full 24 hours after Katrina made landfall, a New York Times photographer was still having trouble dispatching an article that included aerial photographs of the flooded city (Brinkley, 2006, pp. 235–236). Many people find these communications breakdowns unacceptable—but it is the rule rather than the exception.

The trying conditions of a disaster also have a psychological effect. Research shows that even under the best of circumstances what we think we know is simply not true. It also shows that the brain’s sense-making capacity quickly deteriorates under stress. When one gets tired, many routine tasks become much more difficult to accomplish (Coates, 2012; Kahneman, 2011). It becomes harder to make accurate assessments, switch between tasks, and gauge risks. It is also more likely that selfish or superficial choices are made and improper language is used. While the actual impact of stress and fatigue on decision-makers involved in crises is of course hard to assess in hindsight, it was plain to see that many, if not all, key players in Baton Rouge and New Orleans were extremely tired during the first week after landfall. Most of them admitted as much on the record, either at the time or afterward.

We should therefore expect collective sense-making failures in the initial phase of a complex and catastrophic crisis like Katrina. Many crises—ranging from 9/11 to the Boston Marathon attack, from Fukushima to the Paris attacks—have shown how hard it is to make sense of fast-moving events that defy plans and challenge experience. Nevertheless, it is fair to expect improvement during the course of a disaster. That did not happen in the case of Katrina. The authorities did not manage to adapt and enhance their collective sense-making capacity during that first week. As a result, confusion reigned at all levels of government.

A Breakdown in the Communication Chain

Understanding what is happening in a large-scale crisis typically requires sharing information amongst a large number of actors operating at different levels in the system (Boin, ‘t Hart, Stern, & Sundelius, 2016; Turner, 1978). Sense-making takes place in different units, at different organizational levels, and across organizations; this gives rise to multiple, sometimes conflicting interpretations, all of which may indeed seem plausible at the time. Such a variety of perspectives makes it hard to collectively puzzle together available information into a complete picture of a dynamic situation.

Officials in Washington, D.C. would later complain that they did not receive adequate and timely information from the disaster area. There is little evidence indicating that critical information was withheld or simply became stuck in Louisiana. In fact, throughout the first week after landfall, a lot of information (not all of it accurate) reached Washington, where it was collected, interpreted, analyzed, summarized, and shared by a range of government centers.

Much of this critical information got bottled up in the Homeland Security Operations Center (HSOC), located at DHS headquarters. The HSOC had been designed to “connect the dots” during a disaster: it was responsible at the national level for information collection and subsequent information sharing through a number of means, including National Situation Updates, Spot Reports, and National Situation Reports. Representing over 35 agencies, it was created on July 8, 2004, and operated with a US$70 million annual budget, and a staff approaching 300 in number. With hundreds of trained people paying close attention to an emerging disaster, one may reasonably expect government’s collective sense-making to be speedy and effective (Ward, Kiernan, & Mabrey, 2006, p. 65).

The HSOC director, Matthew Broderick, would later claim that the HSOC during Katrina had been just that, speedy and effective. Although he later complained that “we were getting nothing out of Louisiana,” he asserted that HSOC officials “were able to successfully monitor operations and . . . provide accurate and timely situational awareness to the nationwide stakeholders” (Committee on Homeland Security, 2007e, pp. 71, 109). However, the evidence does not bear this out. On the day of landfall, the HSOC did not confirm any breaches. DHS secretary Michael Chertoff and other senior department officials would later state that they did not learn of the collapse of the levees until Tuesday, a full day after the fact (Committee on Homeland Security, 2007e, p. 66). White House investigators concluded that the HSOC “appeared to discount information that ultimately proved accurate, and failed to provide decision-makers, up to and including the president, with timely information” (Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 143).

Why was the HSOC not able to provide more timely and accurate assessments during that first week? One explanation is that it lacked a method by which to effectively make sense of the effects of super disasters. Simply put, only fact-checked information counted. The problem with this approach was that with communications down and authorities overwhelmed after landfall, there was very limited capacity to confirm the veracity of the information that found its way to Washington. For instance, the federal government had a very small handful of officials in the city during the storm (and of those few, if any, were actually familiar with New Orleans, let alone its geography; Cooper & Block, 2006, p. 183). Furthermore, the HSOC apparently did little to monitor local media. But even if it had, it is not at all clear that the HSOC would have drawn on the reports that local radio and newspapers were providing in its official assessments that found their way into the DHS secretary’s and president’s briefing books; in the eyes of the HSOC management, media reports were not verified information.

By the time that the HSOC finally did begin communicating the “facts” of the disaster, its reports no longer had much value to decision-makers. According to Senate investigators, the process of compiling sources, confirming information and then formulating sitreps resulted in a final product that “was, at a minimum, five hours old” upon release (Committee on Homeland Security, 2006, p. 304). That is not very helpful in a fast-evolving disaster.

A Failure of Imagination

Many officials had access to accurate information during the response to Katrina. A critical problem was that at times these same officials did not understand the meaning or implications of this information. State and federal officials, for instance, interpreted initial reports of a breach in a canal wall in downtown New Orleans differently. The governor’s chief counsel recognized these reports as being “very, very bad news” and assumed that “everybody else would recognize that.” Meanwhile, an Army Corps official at the state’s emergency operations center in Baton Rouge reportedly “discounted” this same report (Cooper & Block, 2006, p. 137). It appears that many state and local officials were “lulled into a sense of security by the continual assurance by the [Army Corps leadership in Washington] that the levees were never going to fail” (Parker, Stern, Paglia, & Brown, 2009).

A widely shared source of confusion concerned the difference between levees being breached and being overtopped (White House, 2006, p. 35; Cooper and Block, 2006, pp. 136–137). Overtopping refers to water spilling over the top of a levee, while the levee itself remains intact and structurally sound. Overtopping, on the one hand, is normal and potentially dangerous, but in the end not disastrous (as the water can quickly be pumped out again). A breach, on the other hand, is just that: the levee is actually “broken,” allowing water to pour through unimpeded and at full force. According to the HSOC director, officials “spent a lot of time on what was a breach and what was overtopping and what’s the significance of either one” (Broderick, 2006). From their vantage point in Washington, it was unclear if the flooding in New Orleans had been caused by the expected combination of heavy rainfall and “overtopping,” or by the actual failure of the levees standing between the city and disaster.

Another problem was that officials found it hard to appreciate the importance of the information that they had access to because it was inconceivable to them (see Dror, 2001, on the inconceivability of modern crises). In his book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, Kahneman (2011) explains that people do not see what they do not expect to see and, by the same token, are more likely to see what they expect to see. An inherent limitation of the mind, according to Kahneman (2011, p. 14; cf. Tetlock, 2005), is “our excessive confidence in what we believe we know, and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainty of the world we live in.” When people cannot conceive of what may be going on, “they are very likely to believe arguments that appear to support what they think they know, even when those arguments are unsound” (Kahneman, 2011, p. 45).

This may explain why some officials were selective in the types of information that they used to inform their understandings as to what had happened in New Orleans. In other words, if you are unable to conceive of a situation in which the levees could be breached, then you are more likely to attach significance to reports suggesting that any flooding is localized over ones describing a city underwater. There is evidence to suggest that this dynamic was at play within the HSOC (Committee on Homeland Security, 2007e, p. 67).

When the levees gave way early on Monday morning, it can be safely assumed that few officials conjured up a mental picture of a submerged city or anticipated the magnitude of the destruction that such a flood may entail (cf. Brinkley, 2006, p. 172). The FEMA director, Michael Brown, later made an excellent point when he suggested that if the flooding had been couched in terms of terrorism, “everybody would have paid attention” from the outset (Committee on Homeland Security, 2007e, p. 15). However, many officials apparently found it easy to believe the wildly inaccurate reports of mayhem coming out of New Orleans after landfall.

Coordinating a Large-Scale Response: Who is in Charge?

In a large-scale disaster response with many organizations, coordination is key. A “coordinated crisis response” means that network partners collaborate to solve critical problems. It entails a clear division of labor with limited overlap, the end result being that the most pressing needs of victims are met in a timely and effective manner. The literature identifies two rather different ways of establishing a coordinated response: a bottom-up and a top-down approach (Boin & Bynander, 2015; Chisholm, 1989).

A bottom-up approach assumes that much of the required cooperation will happen organically from the get-go: people are inclined to work together in response to a disaster (Solnit, 2010). This is referred to as “emergent coordination” in the literature. There is no plan and no coordinator. It materializes seemingly without any prompting from above. “Top down” or “orchestrated” coordination refers to collaboration that is organized in formalistic fashion. There are plans and procedures that set out who is supposed to do what. There are mechanisms for “scaling up,” typically through the appointment of a coordinator to oversee the response organizations. The underlying assumption is that collaboration does not just happen; it must be organized.

Emergent Coordination

The emergent coordination that arose after Katrina made landfall was very effective. For instance, early on Monday morning, thousands of people were trapped by the rising floodwaters. As the waters continued to rise over the course of the day and into the evening, the lives of more and more people were threatened. While hundreds of people drowned as a result of the flooding, tens of thousands more were rescued by a combination of government teams and private citizens.

Indeed, the first hours and days after Katrina produced many heroic stories of citizens helping each other in order to survive (Brinkley, 2006; Solnit, 2009). In many instances, citizens banded together to help those in dire need of assistance. One example of this was the collective of citizen volunteers that would subsequently come to be known as the Cajun Navy:

Volunteers participating in the Cajun Navy were not willing to wait for the government for help and took matters into their own hands. The flat-bottomed fishing boats used by volunteers were ideal for navigating through the flooded city. The Cajun Navy was made-up of 350 to 400 boats and people in Katrina’s aftermath. They rescued as many as 10,000 people during the response to Katrina (The Great Cajun Navy, 2016).

Katrina brought together people who had never before met but who worked together to save lives. In the process, they created lasting networks that in some cases would go on to mobilize in responding to other disasters (as when the Cajun Navy deployed to Houston after Hurricane Harvey).

State agencies quickly launched search and rescue operations as well. According to U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries put on an “extraordinary display of both organization and courage.” Rescue crews manning 60 boats began responding on Monday afternoon. By the following afternoon, they had rescued 1,500 people and fully 21,000 by the time the acute phase of the crisis was over (Committee on Homeland Security, 2007c, p. 4). Louisiana’s National Guard also engaged immediately and played a critical role during the rescue operation despite the fact that their primary staging area, Jackson Barracks, was completely flooded after landfall (Cooper & Block, 2006, p. 125; FEMA’s own urban search and rescue, USAR, teams played a more modest yet important role. The first of these units, pre-positioned in Barksdale, Louisiana, only arrived in the area on Monday evening and would not launch operations until the following morning. All told, the FEMA teams reportedly rescued 6,582 people, this despite the fact that water rescue was not formally part of the USAR teams’ mission or a central component of their training, Committee on Homeland Security, 2007c, p. 8).

Orchestrated Coordination

Much of the later criticism of the government response to Katrina focused on what is here called orchestrated coordination. Admiral Timothy Keating, NORTHCOM commander at the time, observed that “during the first four days, no single organization or agency was in charge of providing a coordinated effort for rescue operations” (Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 230). The House’s Select Bipartisan Committee (2006a, p. 189) “found ample evidence supporting the view that the federal government did not have a unified command.” Louisiana’s Jeff Smith commented that “anyone who was there, anyone who chose to look, would realize that there were literally three separate Federal commands” (Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 189). The White House (2006, p. 57) issued a report charging that “critical steps in the response were delayed or foregone [because] various agencies were unable to effectively coordinate their operations.”

FEMA tried to coordinate the response. However, at some point during the week after landfall, senior agency leadership began to realize that they were no longer up to the task. The local command over New Orleans was essentially non-functioning. The state did step in and make up for local-level shortcomings, but was itself quickly overwhelmed in the process. The situation being what it was, FEMA tried to pass on at least some responsibility (for logistics, for example) to the military, but this created its own set of problems.

Ironically, the effectiveness of the search and rescue operation played a significant role in creating a major problem that arguably came to define how many remember Katrina today. In the chaos of the first hours and days after landfall, volunteer rescuers and government teams created ad hoc drop-off sites on higher ground, including a collection of highway overpasses known locally as the Cloverleaf. Elsewhere and unbeknownst to authorities, residents moving under their own steam began congregating at other “dry” sites around the city, many of which were not readily accessible to rescuers. The city’s Ernest N. Morial Convention Center was one such location that later in the week would create headaches at the highest echelons within DHS.

In essence, the critical problem was less one of lifesaving and more one of transportation: authorities found themselves struggling to quickly move the tens of thousands of stranded storm victims out of the city and into safety. Planners had not envisioned the need for a secondary evacuation—from the Superdome and other improvised sites to safe longer-term accommodations outside the city.

Governor Blanco later referred to the situation at the Superdome and the Convention Center as the “trauma of the week” (Committee on Homeland Security, 2007d, p. 24). With reports of violence at the Superdome in particular on the rise, the state saw an urgent need to relocate its occupants elsewhere. While an airborne evacuation was initially contemplated, officials quickly agreed that buses would be more practical. The only problem was that initially at least, there were few buses at hand. With FEMA not delivering the buses it had promised, Blanco felt compelled by Wednesday to begin calling for federal troops to “secure” New Orleans and then assist in moving victims to safety.

Why did it take so long to organize buses? The solution to the problem seemed to lie in effective coordination of numerous interlinked tasks: locate (roughly) 1,000 buses; find drivers; assign a driver to each bus; and then send the buses to designated pick-up points in and around the city. One could be excused for thinking that this should be less challenging than locating and then rescuing thousands of people on the verge of drowning in their attics. However, the fact of the matter was that, while most residents that could be rescued had been by Wednesday, the evacuation of New Orleans would only be completed on Saturday, six days after landfall.

As early as Monday evening, FEMA’s Michael Brown assured Governor Blanco that “FEMA had 500 buses on standby, ready to be deployed.” However, Brown failed to make clear that the deployment would take time, given that FEMA did not operate its own buses, nor had it ordered buses (Cooper & Block, 2006, pp. 104, 121). In fact, it was the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)—as federal coordinator for emergency transportation needs—that was formally responsible for procuring buses, and it would only move on the issue after receiving a formal request from FEMA.

As it was, it appears that the request process was initiated after Blanco and Michael Brown visited the Superdome on Tuesday. Officials in Baton Rouge subsequently worked to formulate a mission assignment for DOT, which detailed the need for 455 buses to evacuate as many as 25,000 people from the Superdome. The request reached DOT headquarters in Washington in the early hours of Wednesday. Brown could not explain the delay other than to say that the “logistics system in FEMA was broken” (Committee on Homeland Security, 2007e, p. 48).

But with the request finally in hand, things indeed started moving. Officials at DOT tasked Landstar, a Jacksonville, Florida-based company, with assembling the required number of buses. Landstar, in turn, asked its subcontractor, Carey Limousine, to order buses. That company then “tapped Transportation Management Services of Vienna, Va., which specializes in arranging buses for conventions and other large events, to help fill an initial order for 300 coaches” (Martin & Zajac, 2005).

Complex and confusing as this may seem, the arrangement worked. The first buses arrived outside New Orleans early in the morning on the Wednesday after landfall (Committee on Homeland Security, 2006, p. 363; Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 121). By midnight heading into Thursday, a DOT official later reported that “some 200 buses had arrived and were ready for operation.” Another 200 buses were en route to staging points outside the city (Committee on Homeland Security, 2007f, p. 40).

The governor had little if any insight into where her request for buses stood within the federal procurement chain, let alone where the buses that had been ordered were in relation to New Orleans. All she knew was that they were not at the Superdome, and this agitated her (Brinkley, 2006, p. 392). It is easy to see why. By this point, the numbers at the Superdome had swollen to approximately 23,000 (Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 121). The media were broadcasting from the site around the clock. The pressure to empty the Superdome was growing. During a conversation with the president’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, the governor voiced her frustration with the situation, prompting both the DHS secretary and the director of the Homeland Security Operations Center (HSOC) to become personally involved in “making sure that sufficient buses were lined up” (Broderick, 2006; Committee on Homeland Security, 2006, p. 362).

By the Wednesday after landfall, DOT was able to deliver hundreds of buses to just outside New Orleans on the basis of FEMA’s request. So why didn’t these buses materialize at the Superdome soon after? There are two explanations.

First of all, many of the buses were diverted from going to New Orleans in order to help other people. The Senate report states that, “when government-sponsored buses began trickling into New Orleans on Wednesday evening, they picked up people from highway overpasses like the Cloverleaf” (Committee on Homeland Security, 2006, p. 364). A lack of coordination lay at the heart of this alternate mission. Flying over the city during the daylight hours on Wednesday, Governor Blanco saw people congregated on highway overpasses, prompting her to have some buses redirected to pick these people up first (Committee on Homeland Security, 2007d, pp. 146, 365).

Second, there was a security issue: many bus drivers refused to enter the city in light of the sensational reports of looting and violence in New Orleans. For this reason, the governor hastily issued an executive order mandating that the National Guard or police protect the buses (Brinkley, 2006, p. 291; Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 122). While this decision certainly alleviated the concerns of many drivers, it slowed things down even further. An additional problem was that many of the drivers had never been to New Orleans before and thus struggled to find their way around the flooded city.

At least four separate bureaucracies (FEMA, DOT, DOD, and the state) became involved in different capacities and at different points in evacuating New Orleans. These different efforts were somewhat unified following the governor’s decision to re-assign responsibility for coordinating the evacuation to the military task force (Joint Task Force—Katrina) that was set up after landfall. The rationale at the time was that the military was up to the task of coordinating the mission where FEMA had failed. However, by the time “unified coordination” was established between the different government agencies and levels, the buses procured by DOT had already started rolling into central New Orleans and its residents were on their way to safety. In other words, it did not really matter that the military took over the evacuation mission.

As flawed as the coordination of the Katrina response appears to have been, it is hard to see in hindsight how the evacuation could have been accomplished much faster. Frustration with the speed of evacuation is certainly understandable. It gave rise to several parallel efforts and as a result created new coordination challenges (and did not ultimately make the buses arrive any sooner). Nevertheless, looking back, it should be clear that the evacuation of New Orleans was not as badly performed as today’s conventional wisdom would have it.

Meaning-Making and the Blame Game

Much of strategic crisis management is functional in nature: it is about organizing and analyzing information, making decisions and orchestrating the activities of network partners. There is also a symbolic dimension to strategic crisis management (‘t Hart, 1993). This pertains to the task of explaining what has transpired, communicating what is being done, and offering guidance to those that have been affected and those engaged in the response, but also to broader society. This is called meaning-making. When citizens look to public leaders to understand what has happened to them, they are looking for guidance. They expect leaders to offer a “frame” through which the crisis can be understood and through which a way forward can be discerned (Boin, McConnell, & ‘t Hart, 2008). In the first week after landfall, none of the key actors managed to impose their frame on the general public. As a result, rumors circulated unchecked and a sense of ever greater anarchy took hold across the city.

The Rumor Mill

Rumors always emerge after a disaster. People will fill in the blanks where uncertainty is allowed to exist (cf. Larsen, 1954; Shibutani, 1966; Tierney, Bevc, & Kuligowski, 2006). An official narrative that is considered plausible and legitimate may help to counter rumors. In its absence, the rumor mill can have a devastating effect on the legitimacy of leaders and institutions.

In a disaster, rumors of looting often emerge. Katrina was no exception. The first reports of looting in New Orleans reached state officials in Baton Rouge on Monday evening (Committee on Homeland Security, 2007c). In the days that followed, the local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, repeatedly described widespread looting at different locations around the city. On Wednesday, national television looped a video clip showing a Walmart being plundered. The Washington Post described “looters roam[ing] the city, sacking department stores and grocery stores and floating their spoils away in plastic garbage cans. . . . By nightfall the pillage was widespread” (Gugliotta & Whoriskey, 2005).

While there was looting in New Orleans, it was not as widespread as media reports suggested (Brinkley, 2006). Television footage was focused on a few stores in a few locations (and was looped over and over again). Overall, it was striking just how few stores were ransacked. When responded to, most of the looting calls received by police “proved unfounded,” according to the Louisiana State Police (LSP; Cooper & Block, 2006, p. 169). The White House report found that “major looting was generally limited to the Canal Street area and ended by Tuesday, August 30” (Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 243; cf. Baum, 2006). Moreover, at least some of the “looting” was authorized by Mayor Nagin’s emergency declaration, which provided a legal basis for the police to commandeer things needed in order to do their job.

A Sense of Anarchy

Accounts of looting were soon followed by stories describing a city under siege and plagued by violence. The media “featured numerous stories of looting, rape, and lawlessness, airing over and over again video of the activities of groups that had already become ‘armed, marauding thugs’ in the minds of viewers” (McClellan, 2008, p. 288; Tierney et al., 2006, p. 68). If these reports were to be believed, New Orleans was wracked by violence on par with post-invasion Baghdad or Mogadishu (Alexander, 2006; Dynes and Rodriguez, 2006; van Heerden & Bryan, 2006, p. 131).

Some of the most heinous reports focused on the Superdome and, later, the Convention Center. Media had people at the Superdome on record describing rampant drug use and acts of extreme violence, including murder, being committed inside the facility; if these reports were any indication, the occupants of the Superdome were on the cusp of rioting. On Thursday, CNN reported that evacuations at the Superdome were suspended because “someone fired a shot at a helicopter” (Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 247; see also Treaster & Sontag, 2005). Officials at the scene apparently confirmed to a Times reporter that ten people had died at the Superdome (Lipton, Drew, Shane, & Rhode, 2005).

It got more fantastic. The New Orleans police chief, Eddie Compass, and Mayor Nagin fanned the fire by repeating many of the more heinous rumors to the press. In doing so, these rumors immediately went from being unsubstantiated hearsay to official fact (Cooper & Block, 2006, pp. 193–194, 205–206; Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 242). In some cases, Compass was in fact the initial source of rumors (Brinkley, 2006, pp. 282, 365). For instance, he told the New York Times that “thugs” had taken control of the Convention Center and were shooting at officers stationed there, who could not return fire “because of the families” (Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 248). According to Compass, “eight squads of 11 officers each” were not enough to repel the “thugs.” Compass went on to assert that rapes and assaults were occurring “unimpeded in neighboring streets” and tourists were being “preyed” on (Treaster & Sontag, 2005). He even claimed at one point that “people” had tried to kidnap him (Baum, 2006).

During the second week after landfall, Compass appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, where he maintained that “we had little babies in there getting raped” (Brinkley, 2006, p. 573). Mayor Nagin was also present on the show. For his part, he claimed that “hundreds of armed gang members” were raping women and committing murder in the Superdome. The general population sheltered there, he said, was “in an almost animalistic state [. . .] in that frickin’ Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people” (Cooper & Block, 2006, p. 193).

While there was undeniably looting and violence, lawlessness was not anywhere near as pervasive as reports at the time suggested (Brinkley, 2006, p. 634; Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 281; Treaster & Sontag, 2005). Accounts of people shooting at helicopters were never verified; the two babies with their throats slit at the Convention Center were never located, nor was the man who heard a rape victim scream, ran outside for help, only to be shot and killed by soldiers (Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 247). Sally Forman, Nagin’s communications director, later denied that her boss, as he said, had watched “hooligans killing people, raping people” (Baum, 2006; Forman, 2007).

DHS secretary Chertoff was correct when he noted that the “Superdome has crowd control issues but is secure” (Treaster & Sontag, 2005). According to the House report, the people in the Superdome “were very unhappy and anxious, but they were never out of control” (Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 248). The Guard troops who secured the Convention Center said they encountered no lawlessness or any resistance (Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 248). The House report found that there were six deaths in the Superdome, but none were crime-related (Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 169). On Friday, when FEMA turned its attention to collecting the dead, officials expected to find 200 murder victims based on media reports—they did not find any (Cooper & Block, 2006, p. 223).

The Role of the Media

The media played a crucial role in the creation and dissemination of these reports. In hindsight, it is clear that many of these reports were built on falsehoods. Experienced reporters did a lousy job fact-checking their stories. Reporters for the New York Times, for example, gave credence to the wild stories of NOPD Capt. Jeffrey Winn, stationed at the time at the Convention Center (Lipton et al., 2005). According to Winn, “violence raged inside the Convention Center . . . police SWAT team members found themselves plunging into the darkness, guided by the muzzle flashes of thugs’ handguns.” Winn claimed that the gunfire became so routine that “large SWAT teams had to storm the place nearly every night.” Winn recounted how a number of women had been dragged off by groups of men and gang-raped; he informed the reporters that people were being murdered. Eric Lipton and his Times colleagues (2005) quoted officials who confirmed that as many as 24 people had perished at the Convention Center alone. None of this turned out to be correct.

There is no evidence that the media approached Katrina with the intention to “push” a certain frame. There is in fact a much simpler explanation for the sloppy quality of their reporting. Reporters were working under extremely difficult circumstances. Massive disruptions to communications infrastructure and the extended flooding of the city made it difficult for journalists to collect reports, let alone confirm their veracity. Operating from a sliver of dry land near the French Quarter, their perspective on the city was limited. They became particularly reliant on events in the immediate vicinity (which happened to include the Superdome and the Convention Center).

The story then wrote itself; journalists did not have to go far to find subjects willing to vent their frustration. Rumors were taken for eyewitness reports. In the absence of any official (government) sources, journalists were forced to adapt, seeking information from other sources instead. Accounts became personal in nature; witness reports in many cases remained unverified (Durham, 2008, p. 111). Journalistic rigor was abandoned (Durham, 2008; Ettema, 2005; Langer, 1998). Unconfirmed reports of looting, violence, and mass rape became established facts, providing residents and spectators across the nation a distorted view of what was happening in the city (Baum, 2006). Some of the television reporting reinforced racial stereotypes (for example, where black individuals were described as looters while white individuals were in some cases depicted as storm victims seeking out critical supplies).

With little information of their own, federal, state, and local officials relied heavily on these inaccurate media reports (Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006b, p. 295). Local officials repeated these reports, assuming they were true, which journalists then faithfully reported. In other words, public officials and the media reinforced each other’s ignorance in an echo chamber filled with unchecked rumors masquerading as facts.

The absence of a shared frame allowed rumors to proliferate, which directly affected the response. As fear spread, the “civil unrest lens” led policy makers to shift the focus from search and rescue to securing the city (Tierney et al., 2006). Three days after landfall, Blanco and Nagin ordered public safety officers to prioritize law enforcement over rescue operations (Blumenthal & McFadden, 2005; Committee on Homeland Security, 2007c; McQuaid & Schleifstein, 2006, p. 284). Starting on Wednesday, airborne and land-based SAR operations were occasionally suspended or at least temporarily redirected to other areas (Cooper & Block, 2006, p. 197; Select Bipartisan Committee, 2006a, p. 286). Given the “unacceptable” level of lawlessness, Blanco requested thousands of troops from President Bush on Wednesday. In the following days, more and more troops and police (including SWAT teams and officers trained in riot control) poured into the city (Berger, 2001).

Leaders soon began to blame each other for what had happened in New Orleans. Local leaders, the source of the wildest and most vicious rumors, were quick to blame federal officials. Their statements were immediately picked up by the national media. The shift in public perception caught federal and state leaders by surprise, who subsequently sought to defend their performance. As a result, the response quickly became politicized in the days after landfall (Cooper & Block, 2006). The White House sought to exercise more control over the response operation, which the Louisiana governor considered unnecessary. (She later refused to “federalize” the response.) Sadly but predictably, it sparked a war of words that would shape how many Americans came to see the response to Hurricane Katrina more generally.

Key Lessons

The findings presented in this article are substantially different from the accepted wisdom that has emerged from the extensive media reports and the official reports that were published immediately after the disaster. It is hard to find positive assessments of the Katrina response. The library of Katrina publications can be summarized under the banner “utter and total failure.” Katrina has become a byword for failure in the public administration, political science, and crisis management literatures.

These reports usually do not offer a clear evaluative framework, a set of norms by which the response is assessed. When the outcome is construed as disastrous in its consequences, the implicit assumption appears to be that the response must have failed in one way or another. Few if any reports explain what is fair to expect from a government that must respond to an unexpected super disaster. If a lack of theory and a virtual absence of crisis management expertise are added to the mix, it should come as no surprise that the findings of many disaster reports are both eerily similar and remarkably shallow.

This article underlines the importance of informed crisis analysis. It is critically important to understand what may be expected from a complex response network, which administrative challenges must be addressed to fulfill those expectations, and what the causes for underperformance may be. What is needed, in other words, is crisis management theory. This articles applied a theoretical framework that specifically aims at the strategic level of response organizations, taking into account the role of political and organizational leaders. It demonstrates that the systematic application of such a framework produces a more nuanced picture than the “utter failure” judgment that characterized the immediate reactions to this super disaster. This results in a set of lessons now highlighted.


Response organizations at the local, state, and federal level did prepare for Hurricane Katrina. In hindsight, though, it may be true that they did not prepare enough. They prepared for a hurricane, not for a flooded city. There were no realistic and timely warnings that the levees would break. The question thus emerges: what does it mean to be well prepared for a disaster if that disaster can take on the unsuspected and inconceivable dimensions of a super disaster? There is no obvious answer. A serious answer would require a normative debate in which the costs of over-preparation are weighed against the chance of a mega disaster occurring.


Officials at all levels continued to be surprised during that week. Even information that was correct and clearly formulated did not suffice to create a shared picture of the situation. A variety of reasons has been analyzed in this chapter. The conclusion must be that surprise is always possible. Officials were surprised to discover that they had a mega disaster on their hands. They were surprised by various adverse developments. They were surprised to learn that certain things did not go as planned. The lesson is that officials operating at a strategic level must learn to work with continuing and pervasive uncertainty. Rather than trying to take away that uncertainty, they must learn to accept it (see Ansell & Boin, 2019, for a reflection on this challenge).


A large-scale response to an unforeseen mega disaster is bound to look a bit chaotic. Emergent coordination is, by definition, improvised. Even orchestrated coordination will not always follow “The Plan.” But that does not necessarily take away from the outcome. Unfortunately, the appearance of chaos is often reduced to the absence of (orchestrated) coordination. This is not a helpful approach and prevents officials from learning valuable lessons that may inform future response efforts.


This article underlines the importance of formulating a shared and sensible message in the wake of a disaster. When officials fail to do so, the results can be quite detrimental. In the case of Katrina, a vicious circle of wild rumors and knee-jerk reactions emerged, which, in turn, confirmed to many that the rumors that they were hearing were true. Rumors thus created a reality that required new strategies while suspending effective courses of action. Confused and frustrated officials then began to take it out on each other, initiating a blame game that further delegitimized the response effort. This may have been the saddest response failure: the inability to work together to check rumors and provide survivors and observers at large with a credible and correct picture of what exactly was going on.


Appendix 1

Hurricane Katrina: A Quick Timeline

Friday, August 26: After hitting Florida and moving into the gulf, Hurricane Katrina takes aim at Louisiana. Preparations begin in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. In New Orleans, there is little apparent concern on the part of the public. The same evening, the New Orleans Saints play a pre-season football game in the Superdome.

Saturday, August 27: The evacuation of New Orleans begins. In Baton Rouge, Governor Kathleen Blanco works with FEMA to preposition resources. Blanco and the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, discuss evacuation and preparation issues.

Sunday, August 28: Hurricane Katrina is now a Category 5 storm. Mayor Nagin, Governor Blanco, and U.S. President George Bush call on citizens to leave New Orleans. The FEMA director, Michael Brown, arrives in Baton Rouge. New Orleans empties out. Thousands of New Orleanians who were unable to evacuate go to the Superdome to seek shelter. The anxious wait for Katrina begins.

Monday, August 29: Katrina makes landfall in the early morning. Powerful storm surge devastates coastal communities in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The levees in New Orleans are breached and the city begins to flood. The bowl is filling up, unbeknownst to most people. First responders and citizens acting on their own save many, many lives.

Tuesday, August 30: The United States wakes to a mega disaster. A massive response is initiated. Outside help begins to arrive. The first rumors of looting and violence are reported in the media. In Washington D.C., federal agencies struggle to get accurate information about the unfolding disaster.

Wednesday, August 31: Disturbing pictures from New Orleans dominate the news. People are stuck on highways, in the Superdome, and the Convention Center, or are seen wandering the streets. Anarchy has reportedly taken hold in New Orleans. Federal and state leaders struggle to produce a clear message.

Thursday, September 1: The response is increasingly described in the media as “too little, too late.” FEMA becomes a household name for failure. Meanwhile, the evacuation of the Superdome using buses procured by the U.S. Department of Transportation begins.

Friday, September 2: The Superdome is evacuated, as is most of the city. President Bush visits New Orleans and confers with Nagin, Blanco, and Brown. Many military resources begin arriving, as do various federal agencies. The worst is almost over. In the media, however, the blame game is in full swing.

Weekend, September 3–4: The Convention Center is evacuated. New Orleans is now mostly empty. While the ordeal for survivors is far from over, authorities can now start to focus on the long-term task of bringing the city back to life.