Hurricane Katrina was one of the most destructive hurricanes to ever hit the US. Hurricane Katrina formed on August 23, 2005, and in less than a week, it became a Category 4 hurricane causing more than $108 billion in damages. Subsequent flooding caused the destruction of more than 200,000 homes and the deaths of at least 1,836 people. By August 31, 2005, the city of New Orleans was completely submerged under water. Many faulted the immense destruction on the local, state, and federal government because of their delayed and inadequate response. The government’s failure to deliver assistance to citizens due to their lack of communication and preparedness caused a delayed and weak response. Hurricane Katrina illustrates the importance of federalism, and how combining and sharing national, state, and local government powers is crucial during times of distress.
The local government is responsible for creating and executing an emergency evacuation plan. During Hurricane Katrina, the local government failed to execute the the city’s disaster plan. On August 28, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin issued an emergency evacuation order, however, it was issued less than 24 hours before Hurricane Katrina would hit landfall. This delayed action caused thousands of citizens with no way to evacuate. More than 1.5 million people evacuated, but approximately 150,000 residents were either resistant to evacuate or unable. Additionally, Mayor Ray failed to use the school buses available to assist in evacuating residents which was something already established in the New Orleans Disaster plan which he chose to ignore. Mayor Ray opted instead to send those who could not evacuate to the Louisiana Superdome without providing any food, water, or security. Once the the government realized that the superdome was ineffective, there was another delay because both the federal and state government could not agree on whose responsibility it was to transport the citizens. Disaster continued when the local government of New Orleans attempted to manage the disaster from a hotel ballroom with undefined communications plans instead of having properly staffed and functioning Emergency Operation Center. On September 1, almost a week after Hurricane Katrina hit landfall, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin finally issued an SOS for help from the federal government.
On August 25, Governor Kathleen Blanco declared a state of emergency in Louisiana. The main criticism involving the state government was the governor’s slowness in requesting federal troops. Governor Blanco did make a request to the National government for additional troops, however, the request to the Federal National Guard Bureau was not made until three days later after the most of the city was already flooded. Governor Blanco defended herself by arguing that she was unaware of the specific types or number of troops needed. Additionally, the task of body recovery was slow and unclear as bodies went uncollected for several days. The state and federal government remained indecisive on a recovery plan casuing bodies decaying in the streets of New Orleans. While FEMA claimed they were waiting for a request from Governor Blanco, Governor Blanco blamed FEMA for the delay. The state government proved to be inefficient and unprepared for the mass destruction Hurricane Katrina brought.
While local and state governments, who have primary responsibility for local disasters, were under heavy scrutiny, President Bush received the most criticism. Many believed that rather than utilizing all of the resources at his disposal, Bush continued to view the issue from afar and waited for it to sort itself out. After four days of the hurricane, President Bush signed a $10.5 billion bill and ordered active-duty troops to assist with relief efforts. However, many units were short staffed because some National Guard units were deployed overseas. Furthurmore, New Orleans’s emergency operations executive, Terry Ebbert blamed the inadequate response on the federal government stating that “FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control.” Many questioned the federal government as billions of dollars had been devoted to emergency preparedness since 9/11. The national government failed to lead and work together with the local and state government which lead to confusion and slow response.
The failures of governmental action during and after Hurricane Katrina were a result of the structure of federalism. The state and local government relied too much on the national government causing unpreparedness and lack utilities to deal with catastrophic events that happened during Hurricane Katrina. A White House report found that there was “a complete breakdown in communications that paralyzed command and control and made situational awareness murky at best.” There were various problems with equipment functionality and usage that led to miscommunication. The federal system divides powers and responsibility between national, state, and local governments, but because the lack of communication, the boundaries between these areas of responsibility were not always clear. Another issue was the interpretation of the Posse Comitatus Act which is a federal statute prohibiting use of the military in civilian law enforcement. President Bush tried to use the Necessary and Proper Clause to fix the problems. During emergencies such as Hurricane Katrina, the president is permitted to deploy federal troops. In the days following Hurricane Katrina, there was concern as there was no security in New Orleans. The White House considered invoking the Insurrection Act so that he U.S. military could legally perform enforce the law in the New Orleans. It is noted that the delayed decision to invoke the Act was due to Mayor Blanco uneasiness was due to “federalism concerns—in particular, concerns about intruding on Louisiana’s sovereignty.”
Hurricane Katrina exposed many major flaws in the government’s approach to disasters at each level. Katrina made it clear that the government’s emergency response system was inadequate as each level of government was unprepared and unable to communicate and cooperate efficiently amongst each other. Katrina and its effects really exposed the nature of opportunistic federalism. Opportunistic federalism is a system where governments try to pursue their own immediate interests with little regard to the other levels of government. This failed during the Huricane Katrina as seen by lack of communication and the confusion of powers distributed between not only the different levels of government but insititutions like FEMA. The state government and the local government had both different ideas and approaches to the Katrina crisis which only was not helpful as the federal government experienced confusion. If the different levels of government were able to coordinate between each other better and coordinate with the other institutions better in case of an emergency,the situation would have been relieved more rapidly and efficiently. Their approach proved to be ineffective as Hurricane Katrina had more problems than it should have. Hurricane Katrina proved that cooperative federalism is crucial in relieving and recovering from natural disasters.
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