Issue 32 - Article 18

Katrina and Goliath: why the greatest military and economic power in the world didn’t protect New Orleans

January 12, 2006
Ben Wisner, Oberlin College, Ohio, and Peter Walker, Feinstein International Famine Center

In terms of human suffering, the 1,281 lives lost and the 600,000 people displaced when Hurricane Katrina hit the US Gulf Coast on 29 August do not stand comparison with the huge loss of life, destitution and upheaval that followed the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 or the earthquake in Kashmir in October 2005. Deaths in Guatemala due to mudslides triggered by Hurricane Stan, the storm that followed Katrina, may equal fatalities on the US Gulf Coast. Nevertheless, there are important lessons to be learned from the Katrina experience, and questions to be asked. The US (with Japan) is often held up as a model of disaster risk management. How, then, could such a tragedy happen? This article offers some observations in preliminary and partial answer to that question, in the hope that others will take up these points in detailed research.

Command without control

Plans for disaster response exist at all levels in the US. In particular, table-top scenarios had modelled precisely a Katrina-like landfall affecting New Orleans. There had also been real-life wake-up calls, most recently Hurricane Ivan, which narrowly missed the city in August 2004. Federal, state and municipal authorities met frequently in the year leading up to Katrina, and both the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for help just days before Katrina arrived. Nevertheless, FEMA had few resources pre-positioned, and only one FEMA staff member was in New Orleans as the storm hit. In the days following there was little coordination of assistance.

One notable failing concerned the provision of emergency shelter. Faced with tens of thousands of people needing shelter, a huge sports stadium (the Superdome) was rapidly opened. Sanitary facilities were appalling, and the stadium’s roof had been ripped open by the hurricane wind. Air conditioning failed, and food and medical attention were sparse. This situation went on for four days while FEMA scrambled to provide assistance. Some people lived in these conditions for a week. There are technical standards for emergency shelter embodied in initiatives like Sphere. It is doubtful whether the emergency shelter provided after Katrina complied with them.

An important part of the explanation for federal government disarray lies in the weakening of FEMA after its absorption by the Department of Homeland Security, the ‘super department’ created after the 9/11 attacks. The Department sees as its primary job protecting the United States from terrorism. Commonplace hazards – hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and winter storms – are treated as second-order concerns. Part of FEMA’s budget was transferred to other sections of the Department, and many senior FEMA staff resigned, retired or transferred out of the agency. FEMA, which had performed well in the past, was a shadow of its former self. At its head was a director, Michael Brown, with no qualifications in emergency management or disaster risk reduction. Critics of Brown’s appointment as FEMA director alleged that he had got the job in return for his support for President George W. Bush’s election campaign in 2000. Brown resigned on 13 September.

Neo-liberalism and the ideology of the small state also played a part. The US has no national policy on public transport or on affordable housing. In the absence of such a policy in normal times, it is hard to imagine the federal government conjuring up a public transport solution to the evacuation problem. Likewise, the absence of a national policy on affordable housing in normal times had much to do with the chaotic housing situation facing storm-displaced families in the weeks after the hurricane struck. Six weeks after Katrina, the federal government was still trying to decide between providing rental vouchers as housing assistance, or whether it should bring in thousands of mobile homes. Earlier in the Bush administration, officials had tried to abolish the government department responsible for urban development and housing.

The role of the military

One of the side-effects of the ‘war on terror’ has been to raise the profile of the military throughout US society. While worldwide the trend has been to move from paramilitary disaster agencies towards civilian-controlled organisations, since Katrina Bush has spoken several times of the need for the military to lead disaster response. Yet the military were thin on the ground in New Orleans because many local National Guard units had been posted to Iraq. Those troops that were deployed in New Orleans were heavily armed, and were not trained in how to work sympathetically with civilians following a disaster on Katrina’s scale. In addition, erroneous and exaggerated reports of a post-Katrina crime wave frightened the military personnel sent to New Orleans, who reacted with aggressive force, aggravating relations with affected civilians. The media were slow to correct these false reports, for instance of numerous rapes and murders in the Superdome stadium-turned-shelter.

Race and class

Issues of race and class also played a role in the poverty of the response to Katrina. According to the US Census Bureau, 67% of the population of New Orleans is African-American. A third of African-Americans – 35% – live below the poverty line. Looked at the other way around, 91% of all poor families in New Orleans are black, and 65% of poor families are female-headed. Over half of New Orleans’ residents rent their homes, rather than owning them, and a quarter of over-25s have not graduated from high school.

Poverty increased vulnerability. Despite the plethora of models and scenarios, New Orleans had no plan for the evacuation of the 120,000 families in the city who did not own a car. People knew they were there; the 2000 census registered them. In fact, much was known about the city’s poor, disabled and elderly, but these groups were nonetheless effectively abandoned as the hurricane approached. The US Census lists 102,000 people in New Orleans Parish (nearly a quarter of the total) as having some form of disability, and 12% of the population are over 65 years of age. Fleets of school buses sat in flooded parking lots. They could have been used to bring people without transport to safety in Baton Rouge or other inland cities. Likewise, the railway could have been used in the emergency. A plan for light rail connections between New Orleans and Baton Rouge has languished for several years. Had such a rapid transit existed, the evacuation crisis would never have occurred.

Six weeks after Katrina, only about 1,000 of some 54,000 applications for Small Business Administration loans had been processed, and only 58 cheques had been sent out. In disasters in the US, it is typically small businesses that have most difficulty recovering. While the official New Orleans commission advising on recovery uses the rhetoric of inclusiveness, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development has stated that he expects there to be fewer black people in the ‘new’ New Orleans. Planners fear the creation of a sanitised simulacrum of the former Big Easy – a tourist playground. Activists are working in the black ninth ward, where flooding was worst, setting up a free clinic and demanding a voice for the poor, black majority in planning the future of the city.

Environmental issues

Although Katrina was a natural disaster, its effects were magnified by man-made changes in the local environment. The growth of the petro-chemical industry on the Gulf Coast and the management of the Mississippi in the service of import/export traffic have decimated coastal wetlands. Experts estimate that one mile of healthy coastal wetland can reduce a storm surge by one foot. In the past 50 years, the Louisiana coast has lost 1,000 square miles of wetland; current rates of loss are between 25 and 35 square miles a year. In addition, the budget for maintaining and extending the New Orleans levee system had been cut. Programmes designed to nourish and rejuvenate the wetlands and to build artificial barrier islands off-shore had not been funded.


The debacle in New Orleans shows the deep structural roots of vulnerability to natural hazards. It also shows the limitations of a highly militarised, command and control approach in the absence of preparedness and mitigation at neighbourhood, municipal and sub-national levels. A reluctant participant in the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe in January 2005, the US could and should have taken on board the guiding principle of the conference’s final declaration: that disaster reduction and human development share the same agenda. The US has a great deal to learn from the rest of the world. Fixated by the ‘war on terror’ and convinced of the virtues of small government, the American Goliath was brought low by a storm whose impacts were anticipated, and could have been reduced.

Ben Wisner is Visiting Professor of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College, Ohio. His email address is Peter Walkeris Director of the Feinstein International Famine Center at Tufts University, Medford, MA. His email address is:

References and further reading

John M. Barry, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America (New York: Touchstone, 1997).

Joel K. Bourne, ‘Gone with the Water’, National Geographic Magazine, October 2004,

Craig E. Colton, Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2005).

John McPhee, The Control of Nature (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989).

Jason Miller, ‘Hurricane Katrina Unmasks “Apartheid American Style”’, The Black Commentator, 20 October 2005,

Urban Institute, ‘Katrina: Demographics of a Disaster’, 9 September 2005,

Ben Wisner, Piers Blaikie, Terry Cannon and Ian Davis, At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters, 2nd Edition (London: Routledge, 2004).


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