The federal bureaucracy’s blundering response to Hurricane Katrina is a lesson in the ineffectiveness of big government.
Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed local governments and left the Gulf region’s infrastructure underwater. All the means for effective local crisis response were stymied by the disaster itself. So the region looked to the federal government to come to the rescue.
Effective crisis response and disaster management rely on immediate information gathering and situation analysis, clear lines of decision-making, and quick and accurate communication.
The federal government had the capabilities, the resources, and the manpower to respond effectively. Yet even President George W. Bush at the time expressed frustration over the lack of coordination and blamed “government bureaucracies.” What went wrong?
Inadequate information gathering and situation analysis. The destruction left behind by Katrina surpassed even worst-case projections of what would happen if a major hurricane slammed into the New Orleans area. The government’s priorities evolved constantly in the early days, obfuscating a clear view of the situation. So there was a great lack of information, and the information that was available was gathered at a distance. Even the media was reporting on the impact before emergency responders were able to fully assess the damage. Meanwhile, federal agencies misinterpreted when and how to send relief.
Lack of clear decision-making. The disaster hindered local decision-making mechanisms. The federal government should have stepped in immediately, but instead it waited for state and local governments to declare states of emergency before providing assistance. As a result, federal efforts to support the evacuation, minimize loss of life, and provide food and shelter were delayed.
Complicated communications. Due to the size of the area affected by Hurricane Katrina, getting information in and out of the disaster area was incredibly difficult. Nearly all phone and computer capabilities were lost. Communications towers and power lines were down. But beyond the logistics, a communications void existed between government officials and first responders. Federal emergency crews were not coordinating with regional and local emergency crews. And federal agencies were not coordinating with each other.
Many have analyzed the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. But the lesson here is timely. As our large, bureaucratic federal government continues to grow, we put ourselves at even greater risk for inadequate crisis management in response to future disasters.
Tara Raeber is a political publicist and communications consultant. She is a veteran of public relations giant Fleishman-Hillard International Communications and the 2008 presidential campaign. Tara is chief strategist and partner at Republicist, a political communications firm in Washington, DC. Following Hurricane Katrina, Tara was deployed to the Houston shelters, providing crisis communications support and serving as a spokesperson for the American Red Cross. She has conducted crisis communications training for many companies and responded to issues from plant explosions to product recalls.