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A Tale of Two Hurricanes: What Does Katrina Tell Us About Sandy? January 2013

A Tale of Two Hurricanes: What Does Katrina Tell Us About Sandy?

By James W. Fossett

“There’s nothing so profound about the logic of the thing. Now executing it, that’s another matter.”

General George C. Marshall

James W. Fossett

Public discussions of Hurricane Sandy almost inevitably involve comparisons to Hurricane Katrina, the massive storm that struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York attracted controversy with public claims that Sandy was “more impactful” than Katrina, and Katrina was repeatedly invoked in media and Congressional debates over the federal response required to address the damage from Sandy. While arguments about which hurricane was more damaging are bound to be inconclusive, the history of the recovery from Hurricane Katrina can offer some valuable object lessons for the recovery from Sandy, which is just beginning.

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James W. Fossett is a senior fellow at the Rockefeller Institute and associate professor of public administration and public health at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, University at Albany.

The Congressional politics of disaster relief were far more difficult for Sandy than for Katrina. Congress responded to Katrina quickly, approving an initial $50 billion relief package within a week. The politics of Sandy relief were far more difficult and took three months to complete. The Obama administration’s $60 billion package initially passed the Senate in short order, but things were far more difficult in the Republican-controlled House. Conservative Republicans and advocacy groups in both Houses pressed objections that the bill was too large, loaded with “pork,” and should be voted down or offset by comparable cuts elsewhere. While the relief package finally passed the House, the process stretched over two Congresses, which required the Senate to pass the final bill again. Majorities of Republicans in both Houses voted against the relief package.

A second lesson from Katrina for Sandy is that having the money approved is not the same thing as spending it.[1] The federal government does not have a consolidated, expedited procedure for allocating and spending disaster relief funds. Instead, funds are available for emergency purposes from a variety of federal programs, each with its own set of procedures, paperwork, and requirements; and state and local officials must contend with each separately. The Sandy relief bill includes major appropriations to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Department of Transportation (DOT), and the Army Corps of Engineers, among others, and disaster relief funding is also available from other agencies. These processes can be lengthy and difficult to navigate. FEMA’s Public Assistance program, for example, requires local governments to obtain advance approval for each project and pay for each project up front before getting federal reimbursement for their costs, which must be exhaustively documented. These lengthy, complex processes inevitably delay the recovery process and make it difficult to spend money in a timely fashion. Three years after Katrina, for example, Louisiana and Mississippi had only spent slightly more than half of their Public Assistance funds.[2]

The Katrina experience thus suggests that the recovery process in New York and New Jersey is likely to be lengthy. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that federal spending for the bill originally passed by the Senate will extend through 2022, though the bulk of funds are expected to be spent within the first four years.[3] President Obama has appointed HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, whose agency has responsibility for the largest amount of recovery money, to oversee the federal response to Sandy, but it is unclear if he will have sufficient power to accelerate the pace of spending appreciably.

Finally, the Katrina experience suggests that the politics around allocating and overseeing the spending of relief funds can be difficult and contentious. One informed observer of post-Katrina politics has described the difficulty various levels of government had in working together as a “second disaster” that may have worse long-term effects than the hurricane.[4] While progress has clearly been made and the response to Hurricanes Ike and Gustave in 2008 was clearly improved over the response to Katrina, the long-term recovery process has proceeded slowly.

The potential for political conflict and delay in the response to Sandy seems high. Most of the funding authorized in the relief package is not earmarked for particular states, meaning that federal agencies will have to make decisions about how funds are allocated between New York, New Jersey, and, in some cases, other states. These allocation decisions can be controversial. After Katrina, Mississippi received more Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding, the largest class of federal assistance, compared to its level of damage, than Louisiana.[5] This imbalance led Louisiana’s democratic governor to complain that the republican governor of Mississippi had received preferential treatment from the Bush administration. Governors Cuomo of New York and Christie of New Jersey have invested considerable political capital in championing disaster recovery in their states, and can be expected to press for funds through both administrative and political channels. Sandy did damage in a number of other Northeastern states as well, and officials from those states can be expected to press claims as well.

There are also potential conflicts over who controls funds allocated to individual states, how funds are allocated to particular localities, and in what degree of priority. After Katrina, there was conflict over control of CDBG funds between governors and legislatures in both Louisiana and Mississippi. Similar conflicts have occurred closer to home. The rebuilding of the World Trade Center area after 9/11 has been marked by considerable conflict between different governors and mayors, as well as extended, rancorous debates over the design of the Ground Zero memorial, the overall site, the proper tenants for buildings on the site, and a variety of other issues. This extended conflict has slowed the pace of recovery in Manhattan—as of mid-2011, nearly ten years after 9/11, over 20 percent of the CDBG funds earmarked for recovery remain unspent.[6] The Sandy recovery may lack the emotional intensity of the 9/11 debates, but it will be spread over a wider geographic area and involve elected officials from outside Manhattan. These officials can be expected to claim support for recovery efforts in particular areas, and there’s presently no institutional machinery in place to arbitrate these competing demands. There has been little public discussion to date of how the recovery process will be managed going forward, but it can be expected to be difficult.

Most of the lessons from Katrina for Sandy are sobering ones. The policies and institutions in place to deal with disaster relief are oriented towards short-term response and recovery and have proven difficult to adapt to such large-scale catastrophes as Katrina and Sandy. Several proposals have been made to expedite funding approvals and make coordination between different programs more effective. One is to establish a presidentially designated “officer in charge” for major disasters who can be in charge of the federal response through long-term recovery.[7] Proposals have also been made for changes to the Stafford Act, which governs FEMA’s programs, to make these programs more flexible and user friendly.[8] Similar changes might be envisioned to the Community Development Block Grant program. CDBG was not initially intended to be a disaster relief program, but has become one of the federal government’s major means for responding to large-scale disasters. Until such policies and institutions that are better suited to dealing with large-scale catastrophes can be put into place, future recoveries are going to be a bumpy ride.

[1] This paragraph is largely drawn from Karen Rowley, “Three Years after Katrina and Rita, Challenges Remain” (Albany, NY, and Baton Rouge, LA: The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government and the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, 2008),

[2] Ibid., p. 6.

[3] Congressional Budget Office, “CBO Estimate of the Disaster Relief Appropriation Act, 2013, as Posted on the Web Site of the Senate Committee on Appropriations on December 12, 2012,

[4] Karen Rowley “GulfGov Reports: One Year Later” (Albany, NY, and Baton Rouge, LA: The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government and the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, 2006),

[5] Jennifer Pike, “GulfGov Reports: Spending Federal Disaster Aid” (Albany, NY, and Baton Rouge, LA: The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government and the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, 2007), p. 6,

[6] Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, New York, NY, Approved Invoices That Were Not Always Consistent With Subrecipient Agreements” (New York, NY: Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, July 2012), Appendix C,

[7] Richard P. Nathan and Marc Landy, “Who’s in Charge? Who Should Be? The Role of the Federal Government in Megadisasters: Based on Lessons from Hurricane Katrina” (Albany, NY: The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, 2009),

[8] Mitchell Moss, Charles Schellhamer, and David A. Berman, “The Stafford Act and Priorities for Reform,” Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management 6, 1 (2009).


The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.