Hurricane Katrina Military Failure or Learning Experience

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What would the outcome have been if the military had guidance in place to respond to national disaster? Could lives have been saved and could have homes and businesses been protected? To evaluate this question, we need to look at the restraints that the military faces during a national/natural disaster. Due to the lack of national guidance, Hurricane Katrina, made the military reevaluate its role in natural disasters

Restraints of the Military

The major restraints imposed on the military are derived from the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. This act states was enacted in an effort to reaffirm the deeply held American principal the civilian and military spheres should be kept distinctly separate. The extensive use of federal troops serving in domestic law enforcement roles during the reconstruction era for Congress to place new limits on the military's role in domestic affairs. Thus, this limits the military's role in national disasters. After this disaster happened, federal state and local officials realized that there was a need to expand the existing authority of the president to call in the military at a more rapid pace. At this time, the Northern Command of the United States Department of Defense, also began to construct a program to create units in the military that were specifically trained and equipped to handle national disasters.

Extensive Loss of Life

Nearly 1900 people lost their lives during Hurricane Katrina. With the miscommunications of Gov. Kathleen Blanco, the federal government could not come to a conclusion to exactly what was needed and held up aid being sent. With such an immense loss of life, it gave the nation and the military the opportunity to come up with a better strategy on how to deal with natural disaster. As stated in the research brief, Learning the Lessons of Hurricane Katrina for the U.S. Army, researchers also concluded that the absence of changes in how the Army plans for response to operates in catastrophic domestic emergencies, future responses will not look very different. However, the research also shows that the Army can take steps to make its response quicker and more robust. At the time of Hurricane Katrina, the United States military did not have a set of standard operating procedures, that they could rely on for guidance. National guidance for the military was lacking to nonexistent. With the separation between civilian and military forces, the had to rely on waiting for executive orders to allow them to proceed to the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina. Had the military been able to step in on day one, we think back could more lives been saved. The military had assets to do more effective search and rescue, and sources to evacuate as many people as possible. With that in mind, the premise would be, that more lives could have been saved.

Extensive Loss of Property and Livelihood

With an estimate of nearly 250 billion dollars in losses, the states involved lost most of their economic construct. 770,000 residents, of the impacted area, were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. They returned to their homes destroyed and no jobs. Had the military stepped in, such as engineers, more flood walls and barriers could have been put in place to help protect property.

During the havoc of Hurricane Katrina, we also must account for the thievery and looting of the homes and businesses affected. Some reports have even stated that local officials, police officers, etc., had been seen looting businesses. The military could have put in place law and order military police forces to control and contain situations of theft and looting. This was not possible as we refer to The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, and to the fact that Gov. Kathleen Blanco would not relinquish control of the National Guard for her state.

Lack of Trust in the Government and the Military

The lack of trust in the government and the military became very apparent after Hurricane Katrina. The cries of the residents in the areas affected went unheard. Trust in the abilities of the local, state, and federal government to help the residents of the impacted area were greatly scrutinized. As stated by Col. Alan D Campen, USAF (Ret.), It found no unity of command- or more specifically, no one in charge and no unified incident reporting system to coordinate efforts of local, state, and federal agencies. It also goes on to state, In addition, there was what the military would call a lack of situational awareness at all levels. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, local state and federal governments, to include the military, had to rethink their policies for natural disaster.

Learning for the Future

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the military and government, learned an important lesson on how ill prepared they were to handle a natural disaster such as this. Federal agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), realized that there had to be a collaboration between the civilian sector and military. Some of the results allowed us to unify the commands set in place for the reaction to national disaster. With the collaboration between the United States military and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the military now has standard operating procedures that they can follow.


Although many would say that the reactions of the military were a failure, we have learned many lessons to rectify the situation. From creating collaboration between the commands, and the commitment to unify the civilian sector and military when it comes to responding to natural disasters, the effects of Hurricane Katrina will not be felt again.


Campen, A.D. (2005, December). Hurricane Katrina Represents a failure to communicate.

Retrieved December 9, 2018, from

Learning Lessons of Hurricane Katrina for the U.S. Army. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Tkacz, S.R. (2006). In Katrina's Wake: Rethinking the Military's Role in Domestic

Emergencies. William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal. 15(1). Retrieved from

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Hurricane Katrina Military Failure or Learning Experience. (2019, Jul 19). Retrieved December 1, 2023 , from

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