The Failure of Leadership in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina exposed the shocking degree of unpreparedness of the Federal Government, FEMA, various local and state officials, and the residents of New Orleans when it comes to dealing with hurricane-force winds and massive flooding brought by the said storm. In the initial days of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina many questions were left unanswered.

Why was there no effective and efficient evacuation plan? Where were the Army and the National Guard? Where was FEMA? And as the questions kept piling up, it became clear that local and state officials failed to plan, and they underestimated Katrina. Thus the local residents paid dearly for this oversight.

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Synopsis

The basis for the discussion on what went wrong in the attempt to contain, manage, and deal with the impact of Hurricane Katrina is Frontline’sdocumentary entitled The Storm. Frontline’s investigative journalists led by Martin Smith attempted to probe deeper into the emergency and disaster response fiasco.

They used video footages taken by New Orleans residents, amateur videos taken by local officials, news footages and combined these with excerpts of video clips taken from one-on-one interviews with experts in the field of emergency disaster preparedness as well local and state officials supposedly in-charge of the disaster. At the end Frontline concluded that there was a failure of leadership and the cost of unpreparedness was the significant loss of lives and damage to property worth billions of dollars.

Lessons Learned

In the first chapter of Frontline’s documentary, Martin Smith interviewed an emergency disaster preparedness expert and he said that for many years prior to Hurricane Katrina there were no catastrophic event of that magnitude that hit mainland USA. He said that FEMA had to study events that occurred in other countries in order to help in the preparation for such an event. In other words no one knew what to expect and there was no urgency to make serious preparations because for many years nothing has happened.

This was a major factor that was overlooked by the planners who tried to lessen the impact of Katrina. They were unaware of the high level of complacency that exists within the government when it comes to emergency disaster preparedness. This attitude created a chain reaction of events that would lead to the worst natural catastrophe in this nation’s history. This should never happen again.

Since there was this attitude regarding emergency disaster management the Federal Government and even local and state officials found little value with a federally funded agency such as FEMA. As a result past presidents would appoint the next FEMA chief not on the basis of qualifications but as a way to return a favor.

In the case of former president George W. Bush he appointed his campaign manager to this post. From the time of Reagan up to the time of Bush all appointees had no background or any type of expertise related to emergency disaster preparedness. This should never happen again.

Local and state officials were also infected with this complacency problem. In the early phase of the documentary the commander of the National Guard – who called from Baton Rogue – contacted a subordinate stationed at Jackson Barracks asking for a status report and in the middle of their conversation the soldier said to hold the line because he is going to inspect something and then he returned saying that he did not know why but water is rising fast and in a few moments he said that the cars in the parking lot were already afloat. This was a revealing interview because it shows that no one was prepared.

It was all right for a New Orleans resident to be ignorant of what was going on around him but the National Guard, the commanders and the soldiers should have been given an update that there are levies preventing the city from being engulfed in a massive flood but the moment those levies were compromised, New Orleans will be swept away. They should have known but no one knew. So everyone was caught by surprise. This should never happen again.

The primary problem is failure in leadership. There are at least two aspects in leadership failure that contributed much to magnify the disaster in New Orleans. First, no one knew the identity of the coordinator, the person in-charge, the one who can rally the troops and make decisions that would be followed by all. They knew there was FEMA, the local officials, and the U.S. President but it seems that everyone was just reacting to the situation, what was needed was a true leader leading the charge and no one was there.

The second aspect is the lack of communication from the ground up to the highest levels of government. According to emergency disaster management experts, local officials often told them that “…figuring out whom they were supposed to work with in the federal government was taking so much time that it hurt their ability to save lives and protect property” (Blackstone, Bognanno, & Hakim, 2005) The same thing can be said about the Katrina incident. There was an urgent need for interoperability but it was not available to the first responders.

The major consequence of failure in leadership – coordination, planning, decision-making, and communication – is unpreparedness. And the cost of being unprepared was staggering. It devastated the Gulf Coast, and flooded New Orleans. But the price of failure was paid in the deaths of 900 people (PBS, 2010). Imagine a community full of a thousand residents and imagine a town flooded and all the people gone, that was what happened during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Finally, one of the most important lessons of this event was to never underestimate the impact of organizational management. In this case there are a lot of questions and a lot of speculations with regards to the fact that FEMA was absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security.

According to one commentary, “it took FEMA nearly 15 years and several reorganizations to effectively coordinate and deliver the full resources of the federal government to support state and local governments in responding to major disasters” (Bullock & Haddow, 2006). FEMA could have done better if it remained as an independent government agency.

Reactions and Observations

There were many factors that contributed to the mismanagement of the disaster. First, FEMA and the Federal Government were not ready to deal with a hurricane and then massive flooding of that magnitude. (Rodger, 2006) Second, everyone from the Federal Government down to the ordinary New Orleans resident underestimated the power of the storm, even in the footage shown by Frontline one can see some soldiers laughing when Katrina already made landfall.

And third, there was no interoperability between the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, state and local government (Burns, 2007). In other words it was not just FEMA, or Washington, or Homeland Security or even the local officials responsible for New Orleans, everyone contributed to the problem and only a few were able to help solve it.

It is important to go back to what was previously stated regarding the absence of killer storms and other natural calamities that affected other countries but not the U.S. mainland. This has created a false sense of security and the lack of examples or scenarios that government officials can use to request for more funding or to plan ahead.

Yet even with this particular problem there was still no excuse because it was not really the first time that coastal areas of America experienced such disasters. In the said video Frontline touched briefly on the storm that hit Miami, Florida and there was devastation there and it should have been enough warning for the government and the people to take seriously the thereat of hurricanes and flooding.

Another major factor in increasing the number of dead people and the number of New Orleans residents who experienced extreme hunger, infected with disease, and injury was due to the underestimation of the impact of the storm. This is because FEMA and the Federal Government made basic plans regarding future catastrophes and they even tried to evacuate the residents and yet their warnings were not taken seriously.

If the whole of New Orleans would have been evacuated then it was possible that the number of affected people and the number of deaths would have been much lesser.

The National Guards would have diverted resources to monitor the levies and water levels since it is a well-known fact that New Orleans is situated below sea level. If the Federal Government did not underestimate the strength of Hurricane Katrina then the Coast Guard and the might of the U.S. military would have been ordered on standby to assist trapped residents in the aftermath of the storm. But no one was near enough and quick enough to respond effectively.

As it is the lack of preparation and the lack of leadership before and after the storm caught everyone by surprise and the reason why many residents were trapped with the city. They were unable to get out and was vulnerable when the power lines went down and when the floods came in to restrict their movement.

This terrible scenario was made worse by the lack of “interoperability” in terms of communication between first responders. This means that resources were not used effectively because the rescue and relief operations were not coordinated.

Conclusion

Hurricane Katrina exposed the unpreparedness of the Federal Government and state and local officials to deal with a crisis of such magnitude. The failure in leadership was the main reason why no one was prepared to handle the impact of the storm.

The reason why no one knew that the levies would break in a city that was below city level and the reason why first responders cannot coordinate their rescue and relief operations. People were angry because no one was helping and the residents of New Orleans trapped in their own homes were angry why no one came.

So many things had happened in the past that added one layer of problem after another but in truth there was no particular agency that was at fault. It was the fault of the Federal Government, the Department of Homeland Security, the local and state officials and even the people of New Orleans. The fingerpointing as described by Frontline, must stop and different agencies must learn to work together in dealing with future natural disasters.

References

Blackstone, E., M. Bognanno, & S. Hakim. (2005). Innovations in E-Government: The thoughts of governors and mayors. MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Bullock, J. & G. Haddow. (2006). Introduction to Homeland Security. MA: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.

Burns, L. (2007). FEMA: An Organization in the Crosshairs. New York: Nova Science Publishers.

Federal Emergency Management Agency. (2010). “FEMA’s Mission.” Retrieved 07 October 2010 from http://www.fema.gov/

Public Broadcasting Service. (2010). “The Storm.” Frontline. Retrieved 5 October 2010 from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/storm/view/

Rodger, E. (2006). Hurricane Katrina. New York: Crabtree Publishing.

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