Panel 4 ROUNDTABLE Author meets critics: Learning from Hurricane Katrina

Conveners: Arjen Boin (Leiden University) and Fredrik Bynander (Swedish Defence University)

Abstract: Hurricane Katrina was one of the worst natural disasters in US history. The assessments have been harsh: Katrina has become a byword for failure. The president failed, the federal government failed (FEMA/DHS), the state of Louisiana failed, the city administration of New Orleans failed. Or so the assessments tell us.

In the book Managing Hurricane Katrina: Lessons from a Megacrisis (published by Louisiana State University Press, published in 2019), the authors Arjen Boin, Christer Brown and Jim Richardson draw lessons that other national systems may exploit to improve their response system in the face of mega disasters.

Many reports have been written on the Katrina response. Most of these lack a clear discussion of the underlying assessment framework. This book seeks to remedy this fallacy. It offers a clear framework that can be used to fairly assess how the various actors reacted to this disaster. The book then applies this framework to provide a fresh assessment of the Katrina response. The authors argue that these popular assessments somehow missed (or de-emphasized) all the things that went really and surprisingly well in the response to Hurricane Katrina.

Building on an extensive review of the many reports and inquiries, and drawing on insights from crisis and disaster management studies, this book identifies the critical factors that determine the success and failures of a societal response to super disasters. It explains how federal, state and local actors can learn from Hurricane Katrina and start designing the building blocks for an effective and legitimate response.

The proposed panel brings together three seasoned academic practitioners who will critically assess the relevance of these findings for European nations: Prof. Bengt Sundelius (long-time advisor to the Swedish Emergency Management Agency), Dr. Annika Brandstrom (head of the Swedish crisis response organization) and Dr. Sanneke Kuipers (consultant at Crisisplan and director of the Leiden University Crisis Research Center). The panel is convened by Dr Fredrik Bynander (director of the Center for Societal Security, Swedish National Defence University) and one of the authors of the book, Prof. Arjen Boin (Leiden University).

Long Abstract:Hurricane Katrina was one of the worst natural disasters in US history. The assessments have been harsh: Katrina has become a byword for failure. The president failed, the federal government failed (FEMA/DHS), the state of Louisiana failed, the city administration of New Orleans failed. Or so the assessments tell us.

In the book Managing Hurricane Katrina: Lessons from a Megacrisis (published by Louisiana State University Press, published in the spring of 2019), the authors Arjen Boin, Christer Brown and Jim Richardson investigate this popular assessment. They not only arrive at a different and much more subtle verdict, they also draw lessons that other national systems may exploit to improve their response system in the face of mega disasters.

The authors argue that these popular assessments somehow missed (or de-emphasized) all the things that went really and surprisingly well in the response to Hurricane Katrina. They then formulate an important question: what is the underlying framework that evaluators use to assess the response to a super disaster? How do they determine that “government failed” in circumstances that are hard to prepare for and often nearly impossible to do well?

Many reports have been written on the Katrina response and most of these lack a clear discussion of the underlying assessment framework. This book seeks to remedy this fallacy. It offers a clear framework that can be used to fairly assess how the various actors reacted to this disaster. The book then applies this framework to provide a fresh assessment of the Katrina response.

The results of the assessment provide a more nuanced perspective on the Katrina response. It was not all perfect, but the response certainly was not as bad as official and media reports made it out to be. This book invites the reader to reconsider the role of government in the face of disaster.

The book also draws lessons for those who have to prepare for and handle future disasters. Many lessons were learned by a host of academics and inquiries (Hurricane Katrina may well be the most extensively studied disaster in history). But these lessons are quite contradictory when viewed in concert; more importantly, some of these lessons are plain wrong.

Building on an extensive review of the many reports and inquiries, and drawing on insights from crisis and disaster management studies, this book identifies the critical factors that determine the success and failures of a societal response to super disasters. It explains how federal, state and local actors can learn from Hurricane Katrina and start designing the building blocks for an effective and legitimate response.