Emergency Planning Before and After Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina was the costliest and one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States. Katrina struck on August 23 during the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season and caused devastation along much of the north-central Gulf Coast. The most severe loss of life and property damage occurred in New Orleans, Louisiana which flooded (as the levee system catastrophically failed) within a few hours after the storm had moved inland. The hurricane caused severe destruction across the entire Mississippi coast and into Alabama, as far as 100 miles (160 km) from the storm’s center. In Louisiana, the federal flood protection system in New Orleans failed in more than fifty places. Nearly every levee in metro New Orleans breached as Hurricane Katrina passed east of the city, subsequently flooding 80% of the city and many areas of neighboring parishes for weeks. The catastrophic failure of the flood protection in New Orleans prompted immediate review of the Army Corps of Engineers, which has, by congressional mandate, sole responsibility for design and construction of the flood protection and levee systems. There was also widespread criticism of the federal, state and local governments’ reaction to the storm, which resulted in an investigation by the U.S. Congress, and the resignation of Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael D. Brown. Conversely, the National Hurricane Center and National Weather Service were widely commended for accurate forecasts and abundant lead time.

Emergency Planning Before Hurricane Katrina

The state of emergency planning for Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans can be crudely summarized as “We tell you when to leave; you take your car and your credit cards, and look after yourself”. However, Daniels et al, authors of the book “On risk and disaster: lessons from Hurricane Katrina” say that this does reflect on the status of emergency planning in the country as a whole. In the U.S., emergency planning is primarily a state and local responsibility. Hence there are various levels of preparedness across the country. Some communities have loosely knit plans that are impracticable to implement in a crisis situation whereas some communities have plans that are elaborately detailed and knit together. One of the reasons for the inadequate planning in New Orleans was the lack of seriousness regarding the possibility of a major flood. Another reason, was a mismatch of expectations about how soon federal relief could be expected after a major disaster (Daniels et al 245). Ebbert said that the emergency plan for New Orleans was basically to “Hang in there for 48 hours and wait for the cavalry (Daniels et al 246). This is further acknowledged by Maestri, Emergency Preparedness Director for Jefferson Parish who stated: “We had been told we would be on our own for 48 hours…Prepare to survive and in 48 hours the cavalry would arrive” Elsewhere Maestri claimed that Fema had actually signed a written commitment to respond within 48-60 hours (Daniels et al 246).

However, according to Glasser and White (A01), federal and state officials pointed to Louisiana’s failure to measure up to national disaster response standards. The federal plan advises state and local emergency managers not to expect federal aid for 72 to 96 hours, and base their own preparedness efforts on the need to be self-sufficient for at least that period. The preparations made by New Orleans and the surrounding parishes would have seemed reasonable if FEMA assistance had arrived within 48-60 hours. The actual explanation for the discrepancy in expectations as to FEMA’s response time is not entirely clear. Neither the National Incident Management System (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, March 2004) nor the National Response Plan (December 2004) actually cites the specific time by which the FEMA response is supposed to be effective.

However, briefing material on these make clear that federal emergency planning envisions “a layered response strategy” suggesting that short-term federal assistance in the immediate aftermath of a disaster is anticipated to arrive only if and when local, regional and state responders and resources became overwhelmed and exhausted. In addition to a lack of serious planning for the possibility of a flood and uncertainty regarding when federal resources could be expected, there was also apparently a lack of consistency regarding which areas of the city were considered to be at risk. While one group within FEMA was conducting emergency exercises for a breach of levees, FEMA maps indicated that the levees and flood walls protecting the lower ninth ward from inundation would remain intact. The result of most of the problems was that according to FEMA, even a neighborhood lying below sea level was considered to be “relatively safe” (Daniel et al 248). Thus there was poor emergency planning for Hurricane Katrina on the part of New Orleans.

Ordinarily FEMA provided support to state and local government in response to explicit requests. After the breach of levees, FEMA waited for itemized requests of needed supplies and support. It was unable to waive its requirement for signed original requests for assistance even in the face of an overwhelming emergency that severely disrupted normal mail service. Lack of coordination was also evident in the way buses were turned back for lack of air conditioning and toilet facilities, donated supplies were refused by FEMA to honor prearranged contracts with other vendors and voluntary organization such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army were impeded from providing support. Further lack of coordination was exhibited by the problems of truckloads of ice and other supplies circling the country for days, much of it never used up for purposes of emergency response. There were also major conflicts between the federal and state governments over the role of the National Guard and the use of military power.

Talking about the slow federal response, it has been found that the delay was mainly due to miscommunication, differing assumptions, and failures of coordination among different agencies and different levels of government. The federal role in disaster response and recovery in the United States has been steadily increasing with time. However, all emergencies are initially local and state events. The extent to which the local-state-federal response ramps up depends on many factors such as the size of the incident and what plans and agreements are in place prior to the event and the capacity of the governments involved. There would be solid relationships among the local, state and federal authorities who might be called upon to work closely together in times of high stress. The emergency planning is such that during disaster times, when local government exhausts its resources, it then requests specific additional resources from the county level. The request process proceeds similarly from the county to the state to the federal government as additional resource needs are identified. Many of the problems in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina arose developed from inadequate planning and back-up communications systems at various levels.

Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

Every level of government that was supposed to prepare for the storm and its aftermath failed miserably. There was no willingness to make the expensive commitments to shore up vulnerable levees or replenish vanishing wetlands that left New Orleans so open to flooding. There was no logical plan to evacuate the city, particularly those too sick, poor or stubborn to leave. When it became clear that tens of thousands were marooned, the federal government was unprepared to rush life-saving supplies to the city’s Superdome and convention center, to rescue the stranded and sick or keep order in the streets (USA Today 1a). This has raised serious issues regarding the sensibility of including FEMA in the new Homeland Security Department. Moreover, according to a Government Accountability Office report, 75% of the agency’s 2006 budget for preparedness grants is focused on terrorism (USA Today 1b).

Some disaster recovery response to Katrina began before the storm, with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) preparations that ranged from logistical supply deployments to a mortuary team with refrigerated trucks (USA Today 1b). A network of volunteers began rendering assistance to local residents and residents emerging from New Orleans and surrounding parishes as soon as the storm made landfall, and continued for more than six months after the storm. The Coast Guard and Armed Service helped in rescuing stranded people. The United States Northern Command established Joint Task Force (JTF) Katrina based out of Camp Shelby, Mississippi, to act as the military’s on-scene command on Sunday, August 28. The Department of Defense also activated volunteer members of the Civil Air Patrol. Michael Chertoff, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, decided to take over the federal, state, and local operations officially on August 30, 2005, citing the National Response Plan.

FEMA provided housing assistance (rental assistance, trailers, etc.) to more than 700,000 applicants – families and individuals. To provide for additional housing, FEMA has also paid for the hotel costs of 12,000 individuals and families displaced by Katrina through February 7, 2006, when a final deadline was set for the end of hotel cost coverage. Law enforcement and public safety agencies, from across the United States, provided a “mutual aid” response to Louisiana and New Orleans providing manpower and equipment from as far away as California, Michigan, Nevada, New York, and Texas.

The criticisms of the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina primarily consisted of condemnations of mismanagement and lack of leadership in the relief efforts in response to the storm and its aftermath. More specifically, the criticism focused on the delayed response to the flooding of New Orleans, and the subsequent state of chaos in the Crescent City. The deaths of citizens by thirst, exhaustion, and violence days after the storm itself had passed also fueled the criticism, as did the treatment of people who had been evacuated to facilities such as the Superdome. Others alleged that race, class, and other factors could have contributed to delays in government response.

The government was accused of making things worse, instead of making things better, by preventing help by others while delaying its own response. As a result: people were left stranded for days on New Orleans’ rooftops without food or water; patients died for lack of medical supplies and thousands were marooned at the Morial Convention Center without supplies reaching them. A deep review of the FEMA’s history shows that after the events of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration has replaced competent leaders with people long on political connections but short on disaster management expertise. At the same time, the war on terrorism has drained the agency’s resources and reduced its effectiveness. FEMA’s director, Michael Brown had almost no experience in disaster work before he was appointed in 2003 by President Bush, and confirmed by the Senate, to lead the agency (USA Today 1a). Brown’s top deputy, Patrick Rhode and FEMA senior manager Daniel Craig were also equally inexperienced. Since 2003, FEMA has been downgraded and brought under the new Homeland Security Department, created to protect the nation from terrorism.

Future Emergency Planning

In the event of a future disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, some changes need to be made in the context of emergency planning. FEMA leadership needs to be replaced with professionals. There needs to be avenues for gaining valuable recognition of education, training, and qualifications for disaster professionals through certification. The importance of the job of emergency plan review should only be left to those who are certified emergency or contingency planners, people who have spent most of their lives protecting lives and property. State and local governments should utilize well educated and trained consultants to assist with the evaluation, review, and validation of emergency operations plans (EOPs), continuity of government plans (COG) continuity of operation plans (COOP), and business continuity plans (BCP) (Kennedy 1).

The plans of the various agencies which participate in emergency response and recovery can vary greatly, but it should contain the following elements: succession plans; call-out arrangements; key personnel lists; management arrangements and structures; security arrangements; evacuation arrangements; medical operation plans; public information; media handling and response; communication strategies; data relating to the site, geography, population etc; designated emergency facilities; recovery strategies and financial arrangements. The plan must be validated through evaluation or through use of exercises. According to Thomas E. Drabek (240), the best way to meet disaster is by planning appropriate actions, resisting denial, having a single person in charge, improving employee and customer communication, anticipating the needs of special populations, and recognizing family priorities, as well as structuring media relations. In summary, the following recommendations may be made in the event of any major disaster in the future (Kennedy 1):

  • Assessment.: Governments need to be more critically aware of internal and external risk factors and the consequences of any failure in their own systems, those of others, or uncontrollable events such as severe weather and terrorist attack.
  • Prevention: Risk factors which have been identified by a government agencies and organisations should be eliminated or substantially mitigated.
  • Preparation of plans: EOPs, COGs, and COOPs must be developed for each local, county and state government. They should be realistic, robust, flexible and address any risks within their scope of authority. They should also meet the needs of all of the recipients of the emergency response.
  • Education: Anyone involved to any extent in an emergency plan should be aware of their role & responsibilities and be given the opportunity to practice by actually doing it.

Plan Review and Validation. Any and all plans must be tested and validated to ensure that they can be truly effective at crisis moments. Certified consultants should be employed to provide an independent third party validation.

Response: It is important therefore that when an incident, and especially a major incident, occurs all agencies are ready and equipped to respond according to the plans developed. Recovery: Medium and long term effects, such as damage to infrastructure, communities and the environment need to be addressed in a coordinated and sensitive manner, and hence government agencies need to be trained to continue to monitor local situations.


Daniels, R.J.; Kettle, F.D.; Kunreuther, H.; and Gutmann, Amy (2006). On Risk and Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina. University of Pennsylvania Press. 2005.

Drabek, Thomas E. 1991. Anticipating Organizational Evacuations: Disaster Planning by Managers of Tourist-Oriented Private Firms. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 9 (2): 219-245.

Glasser, B. Susan and White, Josh (2005). Storm Exposed Disarray at the Top. Washington Post. September 4, 2005. A01

Kennedy, Jim (2005). Lessons Learned from Katrina / Rita. Web.

USA Today (2005a). Editorial: FEMA fails Katrina victims. USA Today. Web.

USA Today (2005b). Editorial: Exposed by Katrina, FEMA’s flaws were years in making. USA Today. Web.

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