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Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina Reconsidered 10 Years Later August 2015

Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina Reconsidered 10 Years Later

By Marc Landy

From 2006 through 2008, the Rockefeller Institute partnered with the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana to conduct a regional analysis of the recovery from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The Institute and the Council contracted with local field researchers throughout the region to examine how local and state governments as well as the nonprofit sector were dealing the many challenges of recovery. The field researchers’ analyses were summarized in a series of reports, which may be found here. In addition, the Institute drew on the reports and other research to examine the role of the federal system in the recovery. Marc Landy of Boston College and Richard Nathan of the Rockefeller Institute wrote a report calling for structural change in the federal government’s management of future megadisasters. Their report may be found here. I asked Marc Landy to update us on his thinking about his and Nathan’s proposal, and we are publishing his thoughtful response today — a decade after Katrina struck.

Thomas Gais, Director, Rockefeller Institute of Government






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Marc Landy is a professor of political science at Boston College. He is the faculty chair of the Boston College Irish Institute. From 2006-2008, he was a consultant to the regional analysis of the recovery from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama conducted by the Rockefeller Institute and the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana.

The Rockefeller Institute enabled me to do extensive research regarding government’s response to Katrina both in the initial emergency phase and the later recovery phase. Based on that research conducted in collaboration with Richard Nathan, my most important conclusion is that for all its warts, federalism remains the right answer for dealing with a Katrina-scale disaster. Each of the levels of government — local, state and national — brought its own particular competence to coping with Katrina. Each also failed miserably. Since each level committed grievous sins in response to Katrina, nothing is to be gained by undermining any one level in order to provide an advantage to another. Both the successes and failures that each level displayed teach lessons about how governments can best respond to megadisasters within the context of federalism.

New Orleans is the poster child for municipal failure in the face of Katrina while the cities and towns along the Mississippi Gulf Coast exemplify local government success. Prior to the storm, New Orleans had no plan for evacuating the disabled, the elderly or those residents and tourists without cars. School buses were unavailable for evacuation purposes because they had not been moved to higher ground. As a result, thousands were stranded in the city. Therefore, emergency responders had to first concentrate on saving those lives before turning their attention to minimizing damage and restoring vital services. By contrast, Mississippi Gulf Coast communities carried out timely and effective evacuations. In New Orleans, many policemen failed to report for duty in the wake of the storm. In Mississippi, police, firefighters and other municipal workers carried out emergency response in exemplary fashion.

The Louisiana and Mississippi state governments likewise exemplified failure and success. Mississippi quickly established response and recovery priorities and was therefore very successful in obtaining federal subsidies and in coming to the aid of localities. Louisiana lost considerable credibility with the federal government because its initial aid request was so bloated. It was not narrowly targeted to flood control and the restoration of vital services, but included many items that had nothing to do with Katrina-related problems and losses.

The federal government responded to Katrina with unprecedented generosity. Never has so much money been spent by the nation as a whole to assist a distressed region. Unfortunately, the actual spending of the allocated sums was too often mired in red tape consisting of myriad application reviews, time-consuming audits and complex procedural requirements. Months and even years went by before various spending pipelines flowed freely.

The key ingredient missing in New Orleans city government and Louisiana state government was executive leadership. The mayor and the governor did not make adequate use of the means available to address the problems posed by the storm. By contrast, various Mississippi mayors, police and fire chiefs, and city managers, and the governor as well, did make good use of the fiscal and political resources at their disposal. At the federal level, the key missing ingredient was, likewise, leadership. But at that level there was no possibility of exemplary executive leadership because no one was in charge. There was no federal counterpart to the mayor, the city manager or the governor. In a white paper issued by the Rockefeller Institute, Richard Nathan and I offered a proposal to establish a federal officer in charge (OIC).

The OIC would perform three essential tasks: (1) work with officials from FEMA, Coast Guard, and other relevant federal agencies to coordinate the federal response effort and take the lead in resolving interagency disputes and conflicts with state and local emergency responders; (2) convene deliberations among the relevant federal, state and local actors regarding recovery planning; and (3) determine whether or not to propose a national recovery plan to the president and, if so, craft that plan. In that event, the OIC would be required to submit such a plan to the president within six months of the OIC’s appointment. Furthermore, in case of a full-fledged governmental collapse as occurred in New Orleans, the OIC statute would provide for an emergency declaration of federal receivership enabling the OIC to temporarily take the place of the mayor and city council.

The most important attribute of the OIC Plan would be its authority to integrate different policy tools, implementation practices, and agency personnel to maximize the likelihood that recovery efforts would build on, rather than detract from, one another. Thus, if one agency insists on the use of affirmative action as a prerequisite for funding and another agency requires color-blind hiring, the OIC would have the authority to cut that Gordian knot. Because the OIC Plan would not be a negotiated product, but rather the fruit of a single strategic vision with full control over policy design architecture, it could embody the resoluteness of purpose and the commitment to priority setting that a robust recovery requires.

The OIC would not be an autocrat. The OIC may bend agency regulations but not congressional statute. The OIC plan would only go to Congress if first approved by the president. It would only go into effect if Congress passed it. Because Congress normally acts slowly and the nature of the megadisaster emergency requires speed, the OIC statute would commit Congress to adopt a fast-track procedure akin to the one it employs with regard to international trade agreements and military base closings. Congress would be required to bring the OIC’s plan to the floor within 45 days, ban all amendments and filibusters, and conduct an up or down floor vote within ten days.

The addition of an OIC at the national level provides for the possibility of strong executive leadership at all three levels of government. If the people are wise, they will elect mayors and governors capable of steering them safely through a storm as terrible as Katrina. And if an OIC is established, the federal government can provide the caliber of executive leadership needed to collaborate successfully with its state and local counterparts.


About the Rockefeller Institute of Government

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.