By Allison G. S. Knox
In 2005, images from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina shocked our nation. We watched in horror from afar as people drowned because they could not be evacuated from hurricane-stricken areas in time.
There were also reports of shockingly incompetent local, state and federal government agencies who couldn’t seem to get out of each other’s way long enough to properly manage the Katrina crisis. Hurricane Katrina became a symbol of government incompetence.
This past weekend, Hurricane Ida rapidly became a Category 4 hurricane and struck Louisiana with an intensity matching Hurricane Katrina. How this crisis unfolds in the next few days will tell us a lot about whether or not the problems that arose with Hurricane Katrina have been appropriately addressed.
Disasters Are Often the Result of Human Inaction and Infrastructure Failures
When major disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ida happen, individuals start to think that the disaster is just a reflection of a storm’s size or danger. While high wind speeds and storm surges certainly impact a community in a profound way, these elements of a hurricane only serve as catalysts to a disaster.
Advance planning and infrastructure preparation – or the lack of it – make a significant difference in community resilience. Katrina’s flooding could have been less catastrophic, for example, if the flood-protection system for New Orleans had been better maintained.
Disasters Can Be Difficult to Define
What we understand about disasters is they’re complicated, and they’re complicated by numerous sociological factors. According to Enrico L. Quarantelli, a scholar of emergency management, disasters are traditionally viewed as “Acts of God.” Quarantelli argues that all disasters are man-made because there is an institutional component to disasters and how they unfold.
Anthropologist Anthony Oliver-Smith noted that it is difficult to define what a disaster is because there are so many factors involved in a disaster. As a result, the definition of a disaster simply has “blurred edges” as we attempt to understand the myriad factors associated with disasters.
Katrina Was Clearly a Major Infrastructure Failure, but Important Lessons Were Learned
Hurricane Katrina was a massive infrastructure failure. Many emergency management scholars have provided their opinion how and why Katrina was such a colossal infrastructure failure. The federal government even published a study illustrating what went wrong with the response to Katrina and what important lessons could be learned from it.
The Emergency Response to Hurricane Ida Will Be Different, Thanks to Katrina
As Hurricane Ida leaves its mark on Louisiana, we know that it is not the same storm with the same circumstances that involved Hurricane Katrina. The wind speeds of both hurricanes may be similar, but Hurricane Ida will not involve the same governmental failures that Hurricane Katrina did.
Instead, Hurricane Ida involves different issues, including the problem of the COVID-19 pandemic that had Louisiana residents in a compromised position before the storm even hit. Emergency managers and emergency management scholars learned a tremendous amount about intergovernmental relationships and collaboration between federal agencies after Hurricane Katrina. Many of these colossal failures have now been corrected.
It is important to recognize that Ida’s circumstances are different from Katrina’s. As disasters often illuminate the problems in a society, we will learn through research what problems still exist in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. We may also gain tremendous insight in what has worked well for emergency management since Katrina.