Posted: May 25th, 2022

Emergency Management Review and Discussion

Emergency Management: Hurricane Katrina and Lessons Learned

In late August, 2005, Hurricane Katrina became the 11th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season and was its most deadly and destructive. The federal and state governments’ responses to this natural disaster have been heavily criticized in the mainstream media as well as by the hundreds of thousands of victims of this disaster in the years that followed. Although it is far too late for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, there were some valuable lessons learned from the disaster that have been used to help formulate improved responses in the future. This paper provides a review of the relevant peer-reviewed and scholarly literature concerning the emergency management of Hurricane Katrina, followed by an assessment of the various lessons that were learned. A summary of the research and important findings concerning these lesson learned are provided in the conclusion.

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Review and Discussion

Background and Overview

On August 29, 2005, the coast of the Gulf of Mexico was struck by Hurricane Katrina, devastating the city of New Orleans and the Louisiana parishes surrounding it, as well as numerous towns along the gulf coast in Mississippi (Cahoon & Herz, 2006). Although the devastation caused by the storm was far-reaching and long-lasting, the effects were especially pronounced in New Orleans itself. In this regard, Cahill (2010) reports that, “In 2005, when natural disaster hit New Orleans, Louisiana, in the form of Hurricane Katrina, life came to a standstill. No aspect of city life was left untouched by the hurricane. It destroyed not only neighborhoods but also the city’s infrastructure” (p. 278). The impact of the massive storm on New Orleans and surrounding parishes overwhelmed and quickly exhausted the available emergency management resources. In addition, Hurricane Katrina’s widespread effects and long-lasting devastation resulted on billions of dollars worth of losses as well as massive relocations of citizens (Cahoon & Herz, 2006).

Although a great deal of criticism has been directed at the emergency management of Hurricane Katrina, there were still countless episodes of heroism in the face of adversity that characterized the response. Moreover, the citizens of New Orleans were given ample warning of the imminent approach of Hurricane Katrina, but many chose to ride it out as they had in the past. Nevertheless, it quickly became apparent that the federal and state responses to this disaster were inadequate. For instance, according to Bitto (2007), “The events surrounding Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and other catastrophes, called forth heroic responses that demonstrate the need for genuine collaboration within communities and among environmental health professionals, public health agencies, multidisciplinary first responders, and other organizations” (p. 28). A February 2006 audit of emergency operations placed the death toll from Hurricane Katrina at 1,330; however, it was also noted that 2,096 remained missing (Monmonier, 2008). By the end of 2005, approximately half a million of the 1.1 million persons evacuated had not returned (Monmonier, 2008). Notwithstanding the heroism that was repeatedly demonstrated during the immediate aftermath of the storm by emergency responders and ordinary citizens, the emergency management response was deemed wholly inadequate by most observers and analysts alike and these issues are discussed further below.

Emergency Management Response

The purpose of emergency management planning for many cities involves formulating plans that clearly define appropriate emergency response and preparedness issues (Edgington, 2011). Notwithstanding the obvious need for this type of planning for New Orleans, some critics have charged that the city fathers have chosen to ignore these issues in favor of other development initiatives, and leaving the planning and emergency management up to the state and federal governments (Edgington). This point is also made by Birkland (2006) who also suggests there was a lack of executive oversight and preparedness at many levels of government, but also points out that September 11, 2001 was still fresh in the minds of nervous Homeland Security authorities that were seeming to have trouble even keeping up with what color the terrorist alert should be for a given day. As Birkland notes, “The shift of FEMA’s emphasis to response to terrorist attacks should not be overstated” (p. 137). The complacency that can erode even the most thoughtful emergency preparations was also cited in the lessons learned from Katrina by Birkland who reports:

[FEMA] continues to support state and local responses to natural disasters, and during the 2004 hurricane season its performance was viewed as relatively good. FEMA did, however, respond to a series of storms that, even in the aggregate, were far lest catastrophic than Hurricane Katrina, and a series of storms that primarily struck Florida, which had learned from Hurricane Andrew and had taken effective steps to prepare for, respond to, and mitigate natural disasters. (p. 137)

Interestingly, and perhaps disturbingly, the racial and class issues identified by resonate with criticism leveled again emergency management authorities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Although there have been marked improvements in the emergency management solutions in the post-Katrina era, the lesson learned here is that the same level of resources that were devoted to restoring and preventing recurrences of devastations of East Coast properties (read, white people), appeared to outweigh the needs of the overwhelmingly black citizens of New Orleans, many of whom were impoverished already. As Birkland concludes, “This was not the case in Louisiana, which was demonstrably unprepared for a storm of the size and scale of Katrina, regardless of FEMA’s failures” (p. 137).Despite the lessons learned from these events, Birkland argues that the Bush administration failed to follow-up on many of the recommendations that emerged from the cross-disciplinary analyses that resulted. Moreover, Edgington suggests that there has been a basic lack of long-term planning for the aftermath of hurricanes that are a frightening part of the city’s history. In this regard, Edgington emphasizes that, “Planners, however, give little attention to the likelihood of a major disaster, and even less is given by all professionals to longer-term recovery and reconstruction issues” (p. 4).

Given the repeated series of hurricanes that have devastated New Orleans time and again, the city fathers should be outright experts in emergency management planning by now. After all, there are lessons to be learned from every disaster if the effort is made to identify them, and after a few such devastating events, it is reasonable to suggest that those tasked with emergency management should have gained enough expertise to formulate timely and insightful, coordinated cross-disciplinary responses to disasters, even in the Godzilla class. As Edgington concludes, “The desired outcome is for communities to emerge from post-disaster recovery and long-term reconstruction safer and less vulnerable to future calamities” (p. 5). Nevertheless, even the harshest critics of the emergency management planning in place for New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck concede the massiveness of the storm. While Hurricane Katrina was not entirely unprecedented, human population and investments in infrastructure, especially oil and gas resources, made this an especially “wicked” storm. According to Getha-Taylor (2007), “Hurricane Katrina, has been described as a ‘wicked problem’ where the time to react was short, no single organization had all the answers, and the cost of failure was enormous” (p. 7).

Hindsight, of course, is 20-20 but in reality, the sluggish response of federal and state authorities was apparent in the immediate aftermath, causing some observers to suggest that there may have been a racial element involved. From this perspective, the poor black people who were stranded on rooftops and forced to seek shelter in an overcrowded Astrodome with no food or water were deemed less worthy of an expensive, mounted emergency response campaign compared to say, New York City. For instance, Patsdaughter (2005) points out that, “Journalists and human rights advocates have raised questions about the role of race and class in the grossly inadequate preparatory and emergency responses of government officials to residents and hurricane evacuees in New Orleans” (p. 75).

In truth, the enormous scope of the disaster challenged governmental responses at all levels. In this regard, Getha-Taylor (2007) advises that, “In fact, the response to Hurricane Katrina involved government authorities on the local, state, and federal levels, and the response required the coordination of at least ninety-three disaster relief organizations, as listed by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, and countless private-sector companies to deliver services to the public in the wake of the hurricane (p. 7). Because every disaster represents an opportunity to learn how to respond better in the future, it is important to identify lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, and these lessons are discussed further below.

Lessons Learned

One of the fundamental lessons learned is that complacency can erode the effectiveness of existing emergency management planning and responses, and contingency plans for disasters of all scopes should be formulated. For instance, complacency appears to have adversely affected the federal government’s ability to respond effectively to Hurricane Katrina. According to Birkland (2006), “The successful federal response to the 2004 hurricane season may have lulled FEMA into a belief that it could effectively handle Hurricane Katrina, which it manifestly did not do” (p. 146). Likewise, Sylves (2008) emphasizes that, “In the wake of the poor government response to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster, many questions have been asked about why the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), along with a host of other federal, state, and local emergency management agencies, performed so ineffectively” (p. 68).

While it is frequently easier to identify what went wrong than what went right, it is less easy to assign blame or accountability for these failures to any single individual or individuals, despite the efforts to do so by many Americans. Rather, there was plenty of blame to go around at every level of state and federal government, as well as the private sector that chose to rely on an aging infrastructure despite the clear need for electricity for post-disaster relief operations and human survival. In this regard, Henderson (2009) reports that, “Hurricane Katrina taught federal, state, and local public managers extensive lessons about the criticality of electricity reliability in a disaster” (p. 55). The White House also conceded a lack of prior planning for disasters of this scale. For example, the White House report, “The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned,” also emphasized the criticality of electricity in post-disaster settings. According to Henderson, the report agreed that, “Hurricane Katrina had a significant impact on many sectors of the region’s ‘critical infrastructure,’ especially the energy sector” (quoted in Henderson at p. 55).

Everyone can readily testify to the enormity of the loss of electricity when outages occur, and humans today depend on electricity for everything. The sometimes long-lasting destruction of the electrical grid throughout the Gulf Coast Hurricane Katrina made the need for planning for disasters beyond the scope of what is typically encountered all the more important. Indeed, Henderson emphasizes that, “The importance of the electrical grid became abundantly apparent when 2.5 million customers who suffered power outages across a 90,000 square mile area in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama” (p. 55). In a world driven by electricity, then, there is also a need to identify ways to deliver emergency electrical power to first responders and emergency management teams for post-disaster recovery efforts. In fact, the need for alternative sources of electricity represents an important lesson learned for state and federal agencies tasked with emergency planning operations. In this regard, Henderson emphasizes that, “Homes, businesses, and federal, state, and local agencies had intermittent or no electricity. There was no light at night; no air conditioning; no refrigeration of food, essential medical supplies, and equipment; and no computers, radios, televisions, or other communication devices powered by electricity” (p. 56). The damage caused by Hurricane Katrina to the electrical grid challenged energy companies despite their best efforts, and it required a month or more to restore power to many affected communities. In this regard, Henderson reports that, “By October 2005, an estimated 2.2 million people had registered for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aid, and 416,852 people were still without power in Louisiana, Texas, and parts of Mississippi” (p. 56). People without power naturally want to have it restored, and when it is not, they are forced to leave and many may not ever return. The effects of Katrina in this regard were not only pronounced, it is reasonable to suggest that they could have been foreseen with some degree of accuracy considering the regularity of destruction that occurs along the coast. In this regard, Henderson points out that, “The irony was that energy-producing states were without energy or power for nearly six weeks” (2009, p. 56).

Besides electricity, there is also a glaring need for the provision of the basic needs of humans. For instance, an after-action report conducted by Frank (2006) found that, “We quickly learned that in addition to the food and water quality concerns that resulted from hurricane damage, there were also health and sanitation issues at shelters for victims and responders that were not being adequately addressed” (p. 29). The potential for the spread of diseases in post-disaster situations is well documented, so it should have been apparent that many of the victims and emergency responders to Hurricane Katrina were exposed to unsanitary and even toxic environments as a result. Overflowing toilets in these situations should not surprise anyone, but they should be noted on the list of lessons learned from Katrina. In this regard, Frank notes that, “Inspection of mass shelter facilities quickly became a critical environmental health function. The high volunteer turnover rate in mass shelters and the overflowing volume of victims created big problems for New Orleans and rural Louisiana” (p. 29).

Despite official warnings to evacuate before Hurricane Katrina, it was clear that there was inequity in who was and who was not able to evacuate-poor people without transportation or money along with disabled and elderly individuals who did not have the ability to leave followed advice to go to the Superdome or Convention Center. And there was ineffectiveness and inefficiency in getting them food, water, and transportation to other shelters after the hurricane passed. No doubt, their outcries of dissatisfaction were the result of lack of equity, effectiveness, and efficiency of emergency aid, particularly in one of the world’s wealthiest nations (Patsdaughter, 2005).

Interviews with twenty-three federal executives from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and five other large federal organizations involved in the Katrina response reveal four key lessons for public managers. These lessons illuminate both the challenge and opportunity inherent to collaborative governance in the context of managing a large-scale emergency response effort (Getha-Taylor, 2007).


Post-Katrina Lessons Learned from Interviews with Federal Responders



Lesson One: Public Managers Must Lead by Example

Public managers must emphasize the importance of collaboration within their organizations before an emergency. To be effective, this emphasis must be apparent through both word and action

Lesson Two: Public Managers Should Focus on Relationships First.

There is a need to “cultivate government managers who are boundary spanners, managers who reach out to find colleagues in other agencies with whom they can solve problems. The need to build strong relationships before the crisis is a highly timely and salient lesson learned from Hurricane Katrina.

Lesson Three: Public Managers Should Recognize Collaborative Success

Some of the responses to Hurricane Katrina were definite “success stories” that were never highlighted. For instance, three nuclear power plants that potentially could have been affected by Hurricane Katrina were shut down to prior to landfall to ensure citizen safety in the surrounding areas.

Lesson Four: Public Managers Need Collaborative Management Training.

The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina cited the importance of preparedness, particularly the need for government entities to work in partnership with each other and the private sector.

Source: Adapted from Getha-Taylor, p. 8.

For the final lesson learned cited above, Bitto (2007) recommends that the following eligible trainees and other recommended participants should receive all-hazards preparedness training sessions for emergency management planning purposes for the following:

1. Environmental health professionals/environmental health scientists;

2. Epidemiologists and communicable-disease investigators/”epi” staff;

3. Public health administrators, including both the leadership and middle management;

4. Members of local boards of health and local medical reserve corps teams;

5. Laboratory scientists and laboratory support staff;

6. Clerical staff and receptionists, drivers, couriers;

7. Computer/data entry staff, public health engineers, and legal/financial personnel;

8. Community health educators and media specialists;

9. Nurses, physicians, and mental health and other public health clinical/hospital personnel;

10. Emergency management agencies and first responders, including regional-task-force personnel, other interdisciplinary preparedness personnel, and public-safety and law enforcement personnel;

11. Emergency medical services personnel and coroners/medical examiners; and,

12. Finally, it is helpful and even essential to develop community awareness to facilitate the recruitment of volunteers. For instance, community volunteers identified by public health departments can help facilitate mobilization of emergency relief efforts during and post-disaster and other emergency situations. These enrollees could include, for example, local religious leaders or representatives of faith-based organizations, service organizations, elementary and high school teachers/staff/administrators, regional colleges and businesses, other segments of the private sector, and members of the general public (who could start their training by preparing a family disaster recovery plan, building a disaster kit, and getting disaster survival training) (Bitto, 2007, p. 29)

Finally, Bitto (2007) emphasizes the need for interagency collaboration and a coordinated response from community-based resources to facilitate post-disaster relief efforts. According to Bitto, “A collaborative interagency and multidisciplinary community response can enhance post-event outcomes, aid in the implementation of a well-coordinated and targeted response plan, and reduce wasteful duplication while supporting redundancy of backup, recovery, control, and mitigation efforts” (2007, p. 31).


Hundreds of millions of people all over the world watched the events that followed the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina in late August 2005 with horror and despair. The vivid images of thousands of women and children, as well as disabled and elderly citizens trapped without food or water in the New Orleans Astrodome raised countless questions about how something so bad could happen in a country so good. Although hurricanes are not uncommon in the Gulf of Mexico, the intensity of Katrina caught everyone off guard, and except for a few instances where preparedness paid off and lives were saved as a result, most of the responses by state and federal agencies showed a clear need for better planning. Perhaps the most important lesson learned from Hurricane Katrina was the need for electricity — and plenty of it — for short- and long-term emergency responders. Certainly, the investment needed to provide electrical generators and harmonized communications equipment to the affected areas is enormous, but so too is the need and first and foremost, electricity is needed to provide effective emergency services. Other important lessons learned included the need for a coordinated response but there appears to be a lack of effort in this area where local, state and federal agencies participate in training exercises that can help improve their responses to future disasters.


Birkland, T.A. (2006). Lessons of disaster: Policy change after catastrophic events. Washington,

DC: Georgetown University Press.

Bitto, A. (2007, January-February). Say what? Who? Me? Right here in the trenches?

Collaborate on what? Seeking common ground in regional all-hazards preparedness training. Journal of Environmental Health, 69(6), 28-31.

Cahill, K.M. (2010). Even in chaos: Education in times of emergency. New York: Fordham

Cahoon, L.S. & Herz, D.E. (2006, August). The current population survey response to Hurricane Katrina. Monthly Labor Review, 129(8), 40-45.

Cory, F. (2006, October). The response to Hurricane Katrina: Iowa’s interstate cooperation and lessons learned. Journal of Environmental Health, 69(3), 28-31.

Edgington, D.W. (2011, November 1). Reconstruction after natural disasters: The opportunities and constraints facing our cities. The Town Planning Review, 82(6), 5-6.

Getha-Taylor, H. (2007, Fall). Collaborative governance lessons from Katrina: Federal executives involved in the response effort reveal four key lessons that illuminate both the challenge and opportunity of working together in emergency management. The Public

Manager, 36(3), 7-10.

Henderson, L. (2009, Fall). From flower to garden: Katrina — electricity and emergency management. The Public Manager, 38(3), 55-59.

Monmonier, M. (2008). Coast lines: How mapmakers frame the world and chart environmental change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Patsdaughter, C.A. (2005, Fall). From primary care for the underserved to emergency aid for hurricane evacuees: Questions raised and lessons learned. Journal of Cultural Diversity,

12(3), 75-79.

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