USA: Katrina - Managing a catastrophe

Originally published
By Chrysi Kastrioti

Hurricane Katrina will be remembered as America's tsunami that struck and ravaged the most disaster vulnerable city of New Orleans. It wrecked havoc over an area the size of Britain, killing approximately 2000 people and displacing thousands, "in a humanitarian crisis of a scale not seen in the US since the great depression" (1). The impacts of such a catastrophe apart from the loss of lives and injuries were several: economic disruption, long term health issues, environmental pollution; and the crucial question to be answered was only one: What went wrong?

The blame philosophy was already under way during the first days after Katrina struck. The federal government was blaming local government and the local was blaming the feds. FEMA was heavily criticized for the bumbling response and the central administration had come under fierce attack for not grasping quickly enough the scale of the catastrophe. Did truly FEMA and central government failed to respond adequately and bring succor to the people at a time of great need?

Quarantelli, in one of his papers, makes a distinction between disasters and catastrophes. In this aspect it could be said that no one was really prepared to deal with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. The scale of destruction was overwhelming. Access was hampered by huge debris and electrical wires. Relief efforts were stymied also by the immense extent of damage. Even the best laid hurricane plans would not have dealt with Katrina's impact.

That was one of the most important issues that Hurricane Katrina revealed; the difference between catastrophe planning and disaster planning. In catastrophes, there is a need for a more agile, adaptable and creative emergency management. Following the "rule-book" (bureaucratic pattern) will inevitably bring a slow response, problematic communication, and finally great frustration to the people for not meeting their needs and their expectations. Extreme events are better managed when responding authorities are able to adjust promptly their response efforts to the environment, fine tune their communication channels (according to the severity of the event), and also modify the decision making process for the immediate life saving interventions. That does not imply that the NRP should be ignored in the event of a catastrophe or that the ICS should be detoured. The challenging concepts of improvisation, adaptability, creativity and agility do not encompass anarchy or chaos (2). The structured control and command system will not be affected negatively; it will be simplified for better response and recovery. And these changes are indispensable for making clear that emergency responders do not manage catastrophes just as being simply big disasters.

In addition, success or failure of managing a catastrophe is based largely on leadership. In the case of Katrina, the lack of presence of a leader who was or seemed to be in control of the situation, who showed interest in getting the best to people, following a code of values-ethics and indicating unquestionably integrity was obvious; and that stigmatized the gloomy picture of the devastated New Orleans. What is needed is a leader who will have those qualities and competencies to agonize the Scylla of overwhelming disasters and the Charybdis of media. A leader who "recognizes the threats" in time, "prioritizes those threats appropriately" and "mobilizes effectively" is not a leader who will be blamed for failure (3). A leader who puts people first, builds very good teams by getting the "right people on the bus" (4), establishes good communication networks in multiple levels, promotes a learning process from past events, evaluates and improves the system on an ongoing basis, and is not reluctant when it comes to self criticism, is the one who can guide and introduce the required changes that need to be adopted for improving the emergency management system. Katrina clearly emphasized this need, and hopefully managing the next big expected or unexpected event will have completely different results from what people experienced in August 2005.


(1), "Hurricane Katrina: The Aftermath", September, 2005

(2) John. R. Harrald, "Agility and Discipline: Critical success factors for disaster response", ANNALS, March 2006

(3) Michael D. Watkins & Max H. Bazerman, "Predictable Surprises: the disasters you should have seen", Harvard Business Review, March 2003

(4) Jim Collins, "Good to Great", HarperCollins Publishers Inc, NY, 2001