Thoughts about Katrina:
Responses to Two Questions about Hurricane Katrina and America's Resilience*

Paula D. Gordon, Ph.D.
Educator, Writer, Consultant

December 1, 2005

*Note: The Forum on Building America's Resilience to Hazards, held December 19-21, 2005, was sponsored by The American Meterorological Society in collaboration with The Space Enterprise Council of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. All invited attendees were asked to submit responses to any or all of four questions prior to the Forum. These are the author's responses to two of the questions.

Question 1: For years, even decades, experts have seen this disaster coming, not just in broad terms, but in some detail. Why were these warnings unheeded?

Warnings may not have been seriously considered or heeded owing to a variety of reasons including the following:

  1. a "failure of imagination" and far-sightedness on the part of persons in key roles of responsibility to conceive that an event of catastrophic proportions could occur
  2. a "failure of imagination" to envision and comprehend in a realistic way what the nature and scope of an event of catastrophic proportions might be like
  3. a "failure of imagination" even within the field of emergency management to consider worst case catastrophic scenarios, unprecedented in the recent US history
  4. a tendency to assume even in an event of catastrophic proportions that major elements of the critical infrastructure would either remain functional or be relatively unscathed, including the availability of communications, emergency services, public health and safety services, and the basic necessities of life, and the capability of governing entities to continue to function
  5. a failure to fully comprehend the differences between moderately severe emergencies in which infrastructure has not been severely damaged or destroyed and catastrophic emergencies in which major elements of the critical infrastructure have ceased to function effectively or ceased functioning altogether. (See The Typology of Emergencies included below for a description of emergencies of varying levels of severity.)
  6. a tendency to assume that the social fabric would not be seriously impacted or placed in jeopardy, that civil disorder and lawlessness would not break out, and that those in roles of responsibility in government would and could continue to govern effectively
  7. a disinclination to believe that an event of catastrophic proportions might occur
  8. denial of the possibility that an event of catastrophic proportions could occur or might occur
  9. the difficulties involved in both acquiring and applying knowledge and understanding and in also applying such knowledge and understand to decisionmaking and action
  10. a failure at times of individuals in key roles of responsibility to keep the public good uppermost in mind
  11. a tendency to think in terms of calculated risks and economic and political tradeoffs and to follow paths of lesser resistance and least near-term costs
  12. a tendency of those in key roles of public responsibility as well as the general public to be relatively uninformed concerning the potential for catastrophic events to occur and the exigencies of emergencies of all levels of severity, particularly emergencies of catastrophic proportions.
Size of Emergency Numbers of Dead & Injured & Extent of Damage and Destruction Roles of Government General Approaches Capacity for Providing Care Kinds of Skills and Training Needed
Small Scale Scores with minimal damage Local Surging of capabilities Adequate capacity for providing care Focus is on meeting needs of a small scale emergency
Medium Scale Hundreds with minimal to moderate damage Local, state, regional Surging of capabilities and providing for makeshift Capabilities Capacity for providing care is taxed but not overwhelmed Focus is on meeting needs of a medium scale emergency
Large Scale Thousands with moderate damage and destruction All levels of government Surging of capabilities and taking extraordinary steps to provide for makeshift capabilities Capacity for providing care is taxed and verging on being overwhelmed Focus is on meeting needs of a large scale emergency
Catastrophic Scale Millions with major catastrophic damage and destruction All levels of government Augmenting whatever is in place and with makeshift Capabilities Capacity for providing care is overwhelmed Focus is on developing improvisational skills and meeting needed in an emergency of catastrophic scale
Mega-Catastrophe Multi-millions plus with unprecedented catastrophic damage and destruction Remaining vestiges of government Augmenting whatever is left in place with largely makeshift capabilities Capacity for providing care is totally overwhelmed Focus on meeting the needs of a worst case catastrophe which requiring reliance on improvisational skills

* "Comparative Scenario and Options Analysis: Important Tools for Agents of Change Post 9/11 and Post Hurricane Katrina" (Forthcoming article in Homeland Security Review, Issue 2, 2006) by Paula D. Gordon, Ph.D. This typology has been adapted from a "Typology of Emergencies" in a Manual for Local Level Emergency Management Coordinators by Paula D. Gordon, April 1984 (Available through Inter Library loan from the FEMA Library, 500 C St SW, Washington, D.C.)


Question 2: The Katrina scenario is not unique. Many other cities and regions of the United States face natural hazards and future calamities of comparable or greater consequence, which are just as inevitable. What can and should be done to lessen both the scope and impact of these slowly brewing disasters?

To lessen the scope and impact of slowly brewing as well as rapidly occurring disasters, natural or manmade, the same general steps need to be undertaken. The following list of recommendations is based on a list that originally was a part of "Improving Homeland Security - Continuing Challenges and Opportunities," a presentation by Paula Gordon to the EIIP Virtual Forum, 3/24/2004 ( and

  1. Developing and implementing in-service education and training initiatives for those in major roles of responsibility for homeland security and emergency management:

    In-service education and training initiatives are needed for those in roles of public and private sector responsibility.  An essential element in all of these efforts needs to be on nurturing a common understanding of the problems, threats, and challenges that face the world post 9/11 and on enhancing skills and capabilities needed to work in collaborative ways to address these problems, threats, and challenges.  In addition to promoting in-service education and training efforts, increased focus needs to be placed on promoting and promulgating of homeland security curricula in academia, particularly in business schools and schools of public administration, public policy, public affairs, public health, computer technology, and engineering. (See also "Capabilities and Skills Needed by Those in New Roles of Responsibility for Homeland Security at the State and Local Levels of Government" by Paula Gordon posted at or see link at Also published in the PA TIMES, Vol. 28, Issue 3, March 2005, a publication of the American Society for Public Administration. Also see "Education and Training Initiatives Needed to Address Threats and Challenges to Homeland Security" at and

  2. Recognizing and addressing organizational culture challenges:

    The implementation of in-service education and training initiatives could do much to address the organizational culture challenges confronting the Department of Homeland Security and those with whom they collaborate. For a further discussion of organizational culture issues see "Transforming Organizations and Maintaining a Healthy Organizational Culture" or see link at Also published in Government Transformation, Winter 2004-05.

  3. Greatly increasing critical infrastructure stability and reliability while also enhancing critical infrastructure protection and continuity efforts and stabilizing the economy:

    Programs, policies, approaches and strategies are needed that are designed to ensure the stability and reliability of critical infrastructure while also enhancing critical infrastructure protection and security.  The general thrust of such efforts would be the restoration, rebuilding, preserving, protecting, and securing of the nation's critical infrastructure and critical assets. This would include the nation's critical physical infrastructure as well as emergency services and public health and medical services.   A purpose in engaging in such efforts would be to enhance economic security and individual, community, and societal stability, while at the same time enhancing the security of the nation in general.  Such multi-purpose actions are needed to minimize cascading impacts that future events could have. If the public sector does not assume the lead role, or assume a role as facilitator of public and private sector efforts, it is imperative that the private sector assume the leadership role. See the following work by Paula Gordon: "Infrastructure Threats and Challenges: Before and After September 11, 2001" (; "Comparative Scenario and Options Analysis: Important Tools for Leaders, Change Agents, Planners, and Decisionmakers,"; and; "Comparative Scenario and Options Analysis: Important Tools for Agents of Change Post 9/11 and Post Hurricane Katrina" (forthcoming); "Improving Homeland Security & Critical Infrastructure Protection and Continuity Efforts" at and (a sixty page white paper on the subject prepared in 2003); and "A Common Goal for Contingency Planning and Management, Emergency Management, and Homeland Security: Building a Disaster Resilient Nation" at or (The latter article incorporates ideas presented in "The Convergence of Contingency Planning, Emergency Management, and Homeland Security", Global Assurance, July 2004.)

  4. Launching a comprehensive strategy focusing on security and reliability of cyber technology, the internet, and complex digital systems:

    Programs, policies, approaches and strategies focused primarily on enhancing the security and reliability of cyber technology, the internet, and Program Logic Computers, Digital Control Systems, and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition Systems. All of these play a significant role in the nation's critical physical infrastructure. All play a critical role in national security, economic security, and individual, community, and societal security.   Strategies focusing on improving the security and reliability of cyber technology comparable to those developed and implemented for Y2K need to be spearheaded by the private sector or through public/private sector efforts, if the Department of Homeland Security, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, Congressional Committees, and/or the General Accounting Office or others do not assume lead roles in facilitating such efforts. A similar focus is needed on the reliability of communications technology.

  5. Focusing on the development of disaster resistant communities, states, and regions: 

    Private/public sector efforts are needed that aim at developing a "disaster resistant" nation with disaster resistant communities, businesses and industries, states, and regions.  By becoming as "disaster resistant" as possible, cascading impacts that could be expected to occur as a result of any of a variety of potential events or tactics would be minimized or mitigated, if not prevented altogether.   DHS and FEMA/DHS need to emphasize the building of community-based and regional public/private sector efforts such as those developed as a part of Project Impact. Seattle, Washington and Jefferson County, West Virginia serve as two examples of such efforts. Existing efforts and networks that already aim at developing "disaster resistant" communities, businesses and industries, etc., need to be strengthen, used as models, and built on.  Information concerning best practices and model approaches need to be widely available. Informal or formal technical assistance and mentoring need to be provided. The American National Red Cross could be a key player in such efforts.

  7. Fostering an all hazards approach to emergency preparedness that places adequate attention on self-sufficiency, including adequacy of the basic essentials of life of food, water, medicine, and shelter:

    Emergency preparedness efforts, including attention to all phases of the emergency management cycle, are needed at all levels of society.   There is a need to increase the number of days that individuals, families, work places, communities, and regions are prepared to be "self-sufficient" in the event people are unable to leave their homes or work places or travel freely.  Such a situation could occur owing to any of a variety of events.   During Y2K preparedness efforts, some jurisdictions emphasized the need for 7 - 10 days of food, water, and medical supplies.   Prior to Y2K, government guidance for disaster preparedness for natural disaster extended to two to three weeks of supplies.   Currently guidance seems to focus on 3 days of supplies. Public and/or private sector leadership is needed to stress the goal of a vastly increased level of emergency preparedness for individuals, families, workers in the workplace, and communities from days to weeks. Any quarantine would be likely to necessitate such preparedness measures. Had such measures been in place in homes as well as public shelters in New Orleans alone, the impacts of Katrina would have been substantially less. The development, expansion, and adequate stocking of public and private shelters are needed in order to be adequately prepared for any of a variety of contingencies. Government entities as well as the American Red Cross could play a major role in such efforts.  Putting such measures in place could significantly minimize problems, including unnecessary hardship and potential social unrest that could otherwise be expected in the aftermath of any of a variety of natural, technological, or manmade events. As a complement to such efforts, there needs to be an 800 number that people could call for advice such as the Public Information Center that existed for Y2K. Not everyone has ready access to a computer. Not everyone is computer literate and even those who are may not be getting the answers they are seeking online or through the publications that they can request online or by an 800 number. Such a Homeland Security Public Information Center could also be used for rumor control.

  8. Recognizing the most obvious vulnerabilities that could involve the greatest loss of life and destruction and taking steps to protect against and minimize the results of possible attacks and disruptions involving these elements of the nation's critical infrastructure:

    The concerns that many involved in Y2K efforts had shared need to be revived again today. Actions need to be taken to ensure that those elements of the nation's critical infrastructure that could cause the greatest loss of life and damage should have primary attention: nuclear power plants, chemical plants, hazardous materials sites, pipelines, the electric power grid, agriculture and live stock, food supplies, water purification plants and distribution systems and waste management and treatment systems. The White Paper on Y2K is archived at . These concerns were more fully discussed there in Part 2 of that White Paper. They are also touched on in an article on Y2K lessons learned and legacies that is also posted on the same website or see

  9. Giving adequate attention and resources to interim, less than perfect, "make-do" plans and strategies as well as plans and strategies that can be ready in the near term:

    Planning for the distance future alone is not sufficient. Indeed undertaking assessments that focus on minutiae may yield more information than is necessary or useable. Far more attention needs to be given to less complete, interim approaches to dealing with incidents or catastrophes. While putting in place long term comprehensive strategies, we must also be ready to take action had an event occurred yesterday or if one were to occur today or tomorrow. Such approaches would place far more reliance on taking immediate practical steps to deal with the situation at hand. Some instructive examples of how real world disasters can be addressed include the efforts of ESRI, E-Team, SAP, and Hewlett Packard and the support they provided to those who managed the response to the California Wildfires. There is also much to be learned from the New York City's response to 9/11. Leadership, pre-existing relationships, exercising, and preparedness and contingency planning made public and private sectors far more effective than they would have been otherwise. (See "Transforming and Leading Organizations" at and for further discussion of these efforts. This article was also published in Government Transformation, Winter 2004-05 issue.)

  10. Establishing at the highest levels of the Department of Homeland Security an internal thinktank, strategic planning, proactive, problemsolving, troubleshooting arm that would, among other things, identify and address problems that no one presently "owns"

    Such an arm of DHS could do much to keep any of a wide range of challenges, problems, and opportunities from slipping through the cracks. Mini-efforts modeled after the one that could be placed in the Office of the Secretary or the Deputy Secretary might also be created within each major component of the Department. In the poster presentation by Paula Gordon entitled "Recognizing and Addressing Problems of Scientific and Technological Complexity," three such problems that are slipping through the cracks because they do not fall within the mission of any given entity of government, any Department, or any part of a Department. Proactive steps need to be taken to address these problems, challenges, and missed opportunities. (See or

  11. Organizing and implementing clearinghouse efforts that incorporate technical assistance support services:

    Clearinghouse efforts that foster best practices and lessons learned in a broad array of areas could do much to advance homeland security efforts. An article entitled "Using E-Technology to Advance Homeland Security Efforts" ( mentions the need for such efforts and describes examples as does the poster presentation entitled "Knowledge Transfer: Improving the Process " (See or

  12. Fostering the use of the Homeland Security Impact Scale as a means of providing a common context and framework for discussing and understanding the continuing impacts of 9/11, the impacts of Katrina, and the impacts of possible future catastrophes, disasters, or events, whether natural or manmade:

    Part 6 of "Improving Homeland Security and Critical Infrastructure Protection and Continuity" ( or is devoted to a simple survey tool that was used by those in the Washington DC Y2K Group. This tool was used to gather assessments from the 300 or so members of that group concerning what the possible impacts might be as a result of Y2K-related technology problems. I adapted this scale for use in considering and assessing homeland security impacts. A primary value of the scale is that it forces individuals to consider what the impacts of an event have been. It provides a common context or frame of reference to use when discussing what those impacts have been and what the impacts of possible future events could be. Use of the Impact Scale may also suggest steps that are needed to minimize impacts of past events as well as impacts that may occur as a result of possible future events. The Homeland Security Impact Scale is reprinted below for ready reference.

0 No real impact on national security, economic security, or personal security
1 Local impact in areas directly affected
2 Significant impact in some areas that were not directly affected
3 Significant market adjustment (20%) + drop); some business and industries destabilized; some bankruptcies, including increasing number of personal bankruptcies and bankruptcies of small businesses, and waning of consumer confidence;
4 Economic slowdown spreads; rise in unemployment and underemployment; accompanied by possible isolated *disruptive incidents and acts, increase in hunger and homelessness
5 Cascading impacts including mild recession; isolated *supply problems; isolated *infrastructure problems; accompanied by possible increase in *disruptive incidents and acts, continuing societal impacts
6 Moderate to strong recession or increased market volatility; regional supply problems; regional infrastructure problems; accompanied by possible increase in disruptive incidents and acts, worsening societal impacts
7 Spreading *supply problems and *infrastructure problems; accompanied by possible increase in disruptive incidents and acts, worsening societal impacts, and major challenges posed to elected and non-elected public officials
8 Depression; increased *supply problems; elements of *infrastructure crippled; accompanied by likely increase in disruptive incidents and acts; worsening societal impacts; and national and global markets severely impacted
9 Widespread *supply problems; infrastructure verging on collapse with both national and global consequences; worsening economic and societal impacts, accompanied by likely widespread disruptions
10 Possible unraveling of the social fabric, nationally and globally, jeopardizing the ability of governments to govern and keep the peace

* "Supply problems" and "infrastructure problems may include food shortages; availability of potable water; degradation of water purity, water distribution and/or waste management; fuel/heating oil shortages, disruptions in utilities (power, gas, telecommunications), disruption in the financial sector, disruptions in transportation (airlines, trains, trucking, ports, ships); pharmaceutical shortages; disruption of health care services or emergency medical services; disruption of fire and public safety services; disruptions or inadequacies, or overwhelming of public works operations and services.

- "Disruptions" and "incidents" can include anti-war and other demonstrations, work stoppages, strikes, organized vandalism, looting, and riots.  Also included are sabotage and terrorist acts and attacks.   (These notations have been adapted in part from notations used in the Y2K Impact Scale in 1998 by WDCY2K.  See also Bruce F. Webster, The Y2K Survival Guide. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 1999.)

The Homeland Security Impact Scale has been adapted by Paula D. Gordon in "Part 6: The Homeland Security Impact Scale: An Alternative Approach to Assessing Homeland Security and Critical Infrastructure Protection Efforts and a Frame of Reference for Understanding and Addressing Current Challenges" in Improving Homeland Security & Critical Infrastructure Protection and Continuity Efforts at and or