Memo Series: Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina

By Margo Zlotnik | April 28, 2016

This memo is part of a series of posts showcasing examples from GPS' Policy Making Processes course. These assignments have students take the role of a policy adviser on a wide range of issues.

Memorandum for: The Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina

From: Eric Mondero – Legislative Consultant for Disaster Relief Policy, American Red Cross

Subject: Federal Management of Disaster Relief and Recovery Operations in light of Hurricane Katrina

Action Forcing Event

The abysmal failure of government disaster relief conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as exemplified by its response to Hurricane Katrina, requires a significant reimagining of current emergency protocols. With climate change making natural disasters all the more common and the long lead time required to internalize the necessary institutional and bureaucratic changes, there is an urgent need to start the process of reform immediately.

Problematic Incentive Structures Leading to Tragic Consequences

Disaster response in the week following Hurricane Katrina constituted a fundamental failure of FEMA to perform its basic mission to reduce suffering and loss of life in the wake of a natural disaster. When your committee presents the final results of your investigation, there will no doubt be a lengthy list of reasons this occurred. What is most disturbing, however, are all the reasons for which it did not. This failure was not due to a lack of preparation; national security experts had just one year prior ranked the New Orleans Scenario as one of the largest potential natural disaster scenarios to hit our country. It was also not for a dearth of resources or manpower; in the days leading up to Katrina’s landfall, our organization along with countless other private and public agencies from around the country organized aid supplies and rescue equipment for immediate deployment.

In spite of the resources, the knowledge, and the willingness of rescue workers to risk their lives, FEMA delayed and at times actively prevented efforts to deliver aid and assistance to Katrina survivors. FEMA denying our organization access to the Superdome to deliver aid supplies to thousands of evacuees is but one of numerous examples of the federal government’s obstruction of professional disaster relief operations conducted by non-government and private organizations. This damage to public welfare by the very institutions charged with its protection can be understood as a product of executive agency leadership responding to problematic incentive structures embedded within emergency management policy.

Such incentive structures are best explained by the ‘Motivational Assumption’ underlying McCubbin’s conception of congressional oversight strategies; i.e. that politicians, as rational self-interested individuals seeking to maximize votes and retain power, will behave in such a way as to obtain the greatest political benefit for the lowest cost.  As a consequence, such ‘power-maximizing’ political leaders will favor oversight that allows for aggrieved third parties (such as citizens, firms, or interest groups) to report violations and misconduct of agencies (known as fire-alarm oversight) over constant and direct surveillance (known as police-patrol). This is because, assuming that both methods of oversight generate identical political benefits, the former does so at a lower cost. As McCubbin summarizes, “time spent putting out visible fires gains one more credit then the same time spent sniffing for smoke.”

Nevertheless fire-alarm oversight, which relies on the affected parties of a major natural disaster to bring to light executive agency misconduct, runs counter to legislative goals to minimize political backlash. For the survivors of Hurricane Katrina left without food, shelter, and livelihoods, a complaint after the fact serves them little utility and they are likely to demand accountability at a political cost much higher than implementing police patrol oversight in the first place.

FEMA’s resource deployment failures in the critical days following Katrina’s landfall can also be understood in terms of these politically rational cost-benefit incentive structures, which result in collectively irrational anti-commons tragedy and Type II error bias policy outcomes. In the case of the former, too many actors wanting to exert control over the situation (and therefore be able to take credit when things go right) were granted veto capabilities over resource allocation decisions, resulting in excessive bureaucratic red tape in a time of crisis. Additionally, risk averse FEMA leadership, which feared the more direct costs of jumping the gun versus passive inaction, had an incentive to be overly cautious and delay action even if it meant more disaster victims would be harmed. Both tendencies severely hampered our organization’s ability to rapidly deploy relief aid; a capability fundamental to effective emergency response.

In light of the emergency management response mechanisms which allowed such incentives to be the basis of FEMA’s delaying or obstructive actions, the remainder of this memo describes two potential routes for reform so as to prevent the political backlash and human suffering incurred by future natural disasters.

1. Privatization

From the perspective of a non-profit organization whose level of efficiency is not defined by commitment to a ‘bottom-line,’ placing disaster response services with the private sector seems counterintuitive. Nevertheless, the ability to act quickly and decisively to bring critical relief goods ‘to market’ as seen by the actions of Walmart and Home Depot presents a compelling argument for speed that no alternative solution could achieve. Such a dramatic policy would also completely depoliticize the process; the upper-level leadership of FEMA’s private market equivalent(s) could not be used as a political appointee dumping ground since ineptitude and profit-loss would eventually put them out of business.

Privatization would eliminate the financial and organizational burden of relief efforts, placing the costs in the hands of private companies and the people who are willing to pay for such services. Such a scenario holds serious implications for who would be able to afford what level of ‘disaster-relief’ care. Of course, foundations and private charities such as ours will always be able to provide some level of assistance, but our resources are not inexhaustible. For example, if left to market forces, what would be the going price for a helicopter evacuation from one’s flooded rooftop? Would insurance cover it? Such a scenario illustrates the Pandora’s box your committee would be opening if privatization was pursued.  Ultimately, disaster relief and recovery’s purpose to maintain general welfare constitutes a public good whose socially optimal provision rests with the Government.

2. Decentralization Disaster Management

The second approach favors decentralization of disaster management efforts, allowing independent action of small groups at the local level who can quickly coordinate and have a vested interest in achieving effective outcomes in the communities they are part of. The capacity for independent action, not needing to wait on bureaucracy and processes to act, is critical.  The unpredictable and ever changing nature of the fallout from natural disasters, much like warfare, requires autonomous and flexible individuals who can execute the larger organization’s mission without specific tasking. In the breakdown of communication that occurs in major storms, this becomes of singular importance as it allows rescue workers to conduct the life-saving activities that maintain public welfare and get ahead of the disaster before the situation becomes unmanageable. ‘Less is more’ will be the motto of federal government involvement under such a scenario, only utilizing agencies with the equipment and logistical know-how (e.g. the Coast Guard) to perform the activities that require large-scale federal coordination.

The argument for quick and decisive action made by Option I also applies to this approach. For example, when the US Coast Guard chose to go around the command structure of the FEMA bureaucracy, they were able to quickly deploy 78 boats and 27 aircrafts to evacuate over 30,000 survivors during the storm’s immediate aftermath. Such an approach also dismantles the problematic incentive structures that lead to the aforementioned consequences of excessive regulation and over-cautiousness. By reworking the system of coordination through which resources and activities are deployed in the wake of a natural disaster, one can therefore remove fear of political retribution or desire for glory from the disaster management structure all together.

3. Policy Conclusions and Recommendations

As it stands now, the professional emergency response community, and I’d venture to add the American public, believe that if Government is left in charge of dispensing federal relief funds they will continue to do so in a way to maximize political ends. Throwing more money, layers of regulation, and new political appointees at the problem will only fuel the public backlash when another disaster sets-off the next ‘fire-alarm.’ Effective disaster relief will not be achieved without dismantling the underlying problematic incentive structures that currently dictate its operations. Both policy options discussed above achieve this, but through the divergent methods of privatization and decentralization. To leave the responsibility for maintaining public welfare to the markets calls into question the very reason for which voters gave you power and would ultimately prove a very poor choice. Policy Option 2 is therefore the best course of action and will give government emergency response management the flexible, reactive, and autonomous features it requires to serve the public interest and legislative goals of your committee.  


McCubbins, Matthew and Thomas Schwartz. "Congressional Oversight Overlooked: Police Patrols versus Fire Alarms." American Journal of Political Science 28.1 (1984): 165-179.

Sobel, Russell and Peter Leeson. "Government's Response to Hurricane Katrina: A Public Choice Analysis." Public Choice (2006): 55-73.

The Storm. By Martin Smith. WGBH Educational Foundation. WGBH Boston, 2005. Film.

Wilson, James. "Part I: Organizations." Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1989. 3-28.

Margo Zlotnik is a 1st year MIA student at GPS. Her focus is International Politics and Latin America. 

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