Government Incompetence Mars Hurricane Katrina Relief Efforts Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

As Hurricane Katrina came ashore along the Gulf coast—most specifically near the city of New Orleans, Louisiana—an ill-prepared local, state, and federal bureaucracy was deeply criticized for its failed response to the devastation. Because many of the victims were African American, critics also claimed that racism was at the heart of government ineffectiveness and inaction. The incompetence led to reform in emergency management at all levels of government and to further questions about the role of racism in how help is administered.

Summary of Event

On the morning of August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall near Buras, Louisiana, as a category 3 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale with 135 mile-per-hour winds and a storm surge between eighteen and twenty-five feet. The storm caused catastrophic damage in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, and led to the deaths of more than eighteen hundred people; the $82 billion in damage made it the costliest hurricane in U.S. history. [kw]Hurricane Katrina Relief Efforts, Government Incompetence Mars (Beginning August 29, 2005) [kw]Katrina Relief Efforts, Government Incompetence Mars Hurricane (Beginning August 29, 2005) New Orleans, Louisiana Louisiana;Hurricane Katrina Federal Emergency Management Agency Blanco, Kathleen Babineaux Brown, Michael D. Bush, George W. [p]Bush, George W.;and Hurricane Katrina[Hurricane Katrina] Nagin, Ray New Orleans, Louisiana Louisiana;Hurricane Katrina Federal Emergency Management Agency Blanco, Kathleen Babineaux Brown, Michael D. Bush, George W. [p]Bush, George W.;and Hurricane Katrina[Hurricane Katrina] Nagin, Ray [g]United States;Beginning August 29, 2005: Government Incompetence Mars Hurricane Katrina Relief Efforts[03510] [c]Environmental issues;Beginning August 29, 2005: Government Incompetence Mars Hurricane Katrina Relief Efforts[03510] [c]Ethics;Beginning August 29, 2005: Government Incompetence Mars Hurricane Katrina Relief Efforts[03510] [c]Racism;Beginning August 29, 2005: Government Incompetence Mars Hurricane Katrina Relief Efforts[03510] [c]Government;Beginning August 29, 2005: Government Incompetence Mars Hurricane Katrina Relief Efforts[03510] [c]Politics;Beginning August 29, 2005: Government Incompetence Mars Hurricane Katrina Relief Efforts[03510] [c]Public morals;Beginning August 29, 2005: Government Incompetence Mars Hurricane Katrina Relief Efforts[03510] [c]Social issues and reform;Beginning August 29, 2005: Government Incompetence Mars Hurricane Katrina Relief Efforts[03510]

Search and rescue staff with the Federal Emergency Management Agency move through a flooded New Orleans, Louisiana, neighborhood on August 31, 2005.

(Federal Emergency Management Agency)

Eighty percent of the city of New Orleans was inundated with water up to twenty feet deep when several levees surrounding the city failed. Local, state, and federal governments were not prepared to respond to the widespread destruction, leaving thousands of people in need of critical aid and guidance. The controversy stemmed, in part, from a lack of communication at all levels of government, both before the hurricane and after.

On September 22, the U.S. House of Representatives convened its Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina, having been given a clear mandate by Congress: “gather facts about the preparation for and response to Katrina, at all levels of government. . . . [F]ind out what went right and what went wrong.” The committee issued its scathing, 520-page report to Congress on February 15, 2006. The report was deeply critical of how government agencies failed to anticipate disaster, despite clear warnings from the National Hurricane Center (NHC) and the National Weather Service (NWS), that disaster was imminent, and failed to take care of even the most basic of human needs after the hurricane made landfall along the Gulf coast. The report lauded only two government agencies—the NHC and the NWS—and commended the work of countless private citizens and groups in taking the initiative to help their neighbors.

Singled out for criticism by not only the committee but also critics across the United States were New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, Louisiana governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, U.S. president George W. Bush, and numerous federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Other critics of the preparation and response included politicians, scholars, entertainers, writers, social commentators, and the victims themselves.

During the five-day period between Monday, August 29, when the storm hit, and Friday, September 2, twenty to thirty thousand people were stranded at the Louisiana Superdome (a sporting and entertainment venue that was used as a shelter of last resort during the storm) and the Convention Center, both in downtown New Orleans, with little or no food or medical supplies. For nearly one week, the city of New Orleans was in chaos, and some residents took advantage of a shorthanded and ill-prepared police department and a Louisiana National Guard National Guard;and Hurricane Katrina[Hurricane Katrina] that was focused on keeping order at the Superdome and Convention Center, by taking food and other needed items from damaged and destroyed stores. (Critics later pointed out that blacks were described by media as looters and whites as victims looking for, finding, and taking food.)

Critics soon accused Mayor Nagin for not having a comprehensive plan to evacuate city residents, especially those with special needs, such as the elderly and disabled. Critics were especially concerned that Nagin, and other officials, failed to make evacuation plans even though NHC and NWS scientists, five years before Katrina, had predicted what would happen if a storm such as Katrina struck in or near New Orleans. Critics also said that Nagin failed to take advantage of the city’s bus system to effectively evacuate those who did not have the resources to get out of the city before the storm struck. Many also pointed out that Nagin lost precious time in failing to issue a mandatory evacuation until 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, August 28, twenty-four hours before the storm came ashore. On Thursday, September 1, a tired and frustrated Nagin went on radio and pleaded with Blanco and Bush to send more assistance, imploring them to “get off [their] asses and do something,” so that they could all “fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of the country.”

Governor Blanco was accused of failing to relinquish enough power and authority in time for the federal government to respond to the needs of thousands of people. Blanco also was faulted for failing to redeploy hundreds of National Guard soldiers who were stationed in one of the most flood-prone areas of greater New Orleans: Jackson Barracks in Chalmette. Another charge leveled at Blanco was that she allowed personal political antipathy toward Nagin and Bush to affect her ability to work with them during the crisis.

President Bush was accused of failing to appreciate the magnitude of Katrina and its destructive aftermath, and that when he did, he did so too late. Katrina necessitated considerable federal assistance. On August 30, one day after the hurricane made landfall, Bush was posing for photographers with a country music singer at a naval base in Coronado, California.

Michael D. Brown, the Bush-appointed head of FEMA, also was singled out as the head of what turned out to be an inept federal agency. Most critics accused Brown of lacking the proper background and experience to manage FEMA and for not correcting the numerous bureaucratic impediments that prevented the agency from doing its job. Bush clearly showed that he did not understand the magnitude of the disaster, nor FEMA’s incompetence, when he publicly praised Brown on Friday, September 2, for “doing a heck of a job.” Many also said that Bush had cut funding for the upkeep of the levees that surrounded New Orleans, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers helped oversee and maintain.

Displaced New Orleans residents wait along the side of a closed freeway for FEMA assistance on September 2, 2005, five days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

(Federal Emergency Management Agency)

The worst of the crisis ended on September 2, when Bush, with Blanco’s consent, ordered the National National Guard;and Hurricane Katrina[Hurricane Katrina] Guard to join forces with thirty thousand regular U.S. Army soldiers. They were placed under the command of Lieutenant General Russel Honoré. Thousands of storm victims who were living in the squalid conditions at the Superdome and Convention Center were bused to the Astrodome in Houston, Texas, leaving the two giant buildings nearly empty by Friday. Bush, Nagin, and Blanco met on Friday to discuss the lack of communication among responding agencies, including the local, state, and federal governments. In a heated but ultimately productive exchange, Nagin encouraged Blanco and Bush to “get together on the same page.”

Impact

Criticism of the governments’ response to Hurricane Katrina opened up a personal and partisan political debate, mostly involving Nagin, Blanco, and Bush. On September 12, FEMA director Brown resigned. Ten days later, the congressional investigatory committee convened, and hearings proceeded for months.

In addition to government incompetence, racism played a role in the emergency response to Katrina. The hurricane and its aftermath exposed deep socioeconomic and racial divisions in New Orleans. Critics argued that African Americans were largely forgotten in the crisis. The residents of devastated areas such as the Ninth Ward and New Orleans East were mostly black, as were most of the evacuees and those who ended up at the Superdome or Convention Center because their homes were destroyed and had nowhere else to go. Those most in need and most vulnerable, critics argued, were black, and race played a crucial role in why government officials did not move quickly enough to provide assistance. Reflecting these deep divisions, many people even accused white city officials of blowing up the levees to protect white neighborhoods. This fear was a legitimate one. During the 1927 Mississippi River flood, New Orleans city officials had dynamited several levees to save wealthier white neighborhoods at the expense of poorer African American neighborhoods. On September 2, during an NBC television fund-raiser for Katrina victims, singer-entertainer Kanye West claimed that President Bush “doesn’t care” about black people.

The political fallout hurt the careers of some elected officials, including Blanco, who chose not to run for reelection in the fall of 2007. Others, including Nagin, continued their careers amid the controversy. In a January 16 speech, Nagin, who is black, made a racially insensitive remark, referring to the inevitability of New Orleans once again becoming a “chocolate city” (a black majority). Despite widespread criticism, he won a close mayoral election in the fall of 2006.

Three years of thinking about Katrina led to a different response by government officials when Hurricane Gustav, a category 2 storm, made landfall west of New Orleans on the morning of September 1, 2008. This time, evacuation plans were in order. Mayor Nagin and the governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, ordered evacuations days before Gustav came ashore. The order led to the largest evacuation in the history of the state. Although this storm was predicted to be less strong than Katrina, officials would not take chances, especially given that the whole world was watching their response. New Orleans, Louisiana Louisiana;Hurricane Katrina Federal Emergency Management Agency Blanco, Kathleen Babineaux Brown, Michael D. Bush, George W. [p]Bush, George W.;and Hurricane Katrina[Hurricane Katrina] Nagin, Ray

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brinkley, Douglas. The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. New York: William Morrow, 2006. Excellent detailed analysis of the immediate impact of Katrina, spanning August 27 to September 3, 2005. Brinkley marshals a wide array of sources, including interviews, newspaper articles, magazines, and secondary sources based on the history of hurricanes and the coastal South in general. Illustrated, with endnotes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dewan, Shaila. “Resources Scarce, Homelessness Persists in New Orleans.” The New York Times, May 28, 2008. A report, nearly three years after Katrina, on the thousands of residents of New Orleans, and other places hit by the hurricane, who remain homeless.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dyson, Michael Eric. Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster. New York: Basic Civitas, 2006. Dyson’s work focuses mostly on the racial dynamics of the governments’ response to Katrina. Argues that an insidious racism permeated the incompetence and lack of urgency surrounding the governments’ response. Illustrated, with endnotes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Horn, Jed. Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City. New York: Random House, 2006. Horn based his study mostly on interviews and goes further in time chronologically than Brinkley. Maps, endnotes, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marable, Manning, and Kristen Clarke, eds. Seeking Higher Ground: The Hurricane Katrina Crisis, Race, and Public Policy Reader. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. A collection exploring the intersections of public policy, government, and race in the wake of Katrina. Argues that perceptions of the disaster cannot be divorced from perceptions of New Orleans as a black city.

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