Urban Wire How to "stop" the next Katrina
Carlos Martín
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The response, relief, and recovery efforts around Hurricane Katrina showed us how unprepared our country was to deal with massive hazards that hit vulnerable populations. But what have we done differently since Katrina’s landfall 10 years ago? We likely can’t stop the next hurricane or other hazard, but can we prevent the ensuing disaster?

Since Katrina, we have learned how to better manage response and relief—that is, what happens as and right after a disaster occurs. Emergency alert systems and evacuation plans are vastly improved, and the sequence of handoffs from first responders to long-term planners is clearer.

Much of this change stems from the post-Katrina call to overhaul the fundamental ways in which the nation addresses federally declared disasters. Strategic documents like the National Disaster Recovery Framework establish clearer roles among federal departments and agencies and promote state and local coordination.

Most important, these new frameworks acknowledge that disaster management requires consideration of the continuum of events and effects that precede and follow disasters. Recovery funds, like those used for Superstorm Sandy, are now used to help communities prepare for the next threat as much as just rebuilding after the last.

But even after Katrina, Sandy, and innumerous tornadoes, wildfires, and other hazards, we continue to face major political and economic challenges in relation to US disaster management.

It’s one thing to acknowledge that preparedness and mitigation are as important as response and recovery for dealing with disasters--and are potentially more cost-effective and more considerate of local communities. But this realization brings up a whole other set of needs.


To prepare, you need to know what kind of disasters will strike, how, and who will be affected. Today, we know more about Katrinas and how to deal with them. Reliance on solid science is key, and predictive models about weather from NOAA, earthquakes from the USGS, and climate from the US Global Change Research Program are slowly making their way into local and state planning for land use and building, public works and infrastructure, and even public health.

Vulnerability assessments are on the rise, as are better flood maps and other geographic information. Social and demographic records—where residents are and what their capacity is before and what their needs are after—are coming into view. These data are particularly needed for the most vulnerable communities, like the physically challenged, elderly, youth, and low-income households with few resources or preparation opportunities.

We also know more about how to engineer responses to threats, often borrowing ideas from other countries.


As the science improves, we have the opportunity to make better decisions. But even when we understand risks, we still make more expedient decisions, rather than develop more long-term solutions. We build infrastructure designed to protect us from a rare storm that is expected in a 100-year timeframe, but not the rarer (but still possible) storm that will happen in 500 years

Cities and regions typically plan for growth, not around constraints. With regard to disaster, local planning is even weaker. Few cities have integrated disaster management and climate adaptation strategies into their comprehensive planning, and most have emergency management offices focused on preparedness and response only—not on mitigation and resilience building. So, we’re only just starting to plan on stopping Katrinas.


Even where good plans exist, citizens don’t always know what to do in the event of a disaster, let alone how to reduce their possible risks before a disaster. From having a disaster preparedness kit, to knowing evacuation routes, to obtaining affordable insurance policies, most people aren’t ready. Retrofitting their homes for a future disaster doesn’t even register among home remodeling projects.

When a disaster strikes, neighbors help out and people pitch in. But what happens before a disaster? Behaviors have to change to really stop another Katrina, but people have a tendency to tune in only during and right after disasters. Institutions need to take up the slack. But, as Professor Mary Comerio, one of our nation’s best authorities on natural disasters, housing, and planning, would say: “crisis brings out the best in people, but often the worst in institutions.”

Fortunately, there are increasing examples of how to take this on. In San Francisco, the first city to hire a chief resilience officer, local groups of all kinds are heavily engaged in disaster management. The city is also attempting to engage hard-to-reach populations, like millennials.


To implement knowledge, planning, and community engagement, though, you need the resources. Planning and infrastructure simply cost a lot of money.

FEMA’s mitigation grant programs don’t come close to covering the magnitude of needs, and are constrained by state and local jurisdiction over most land use and infrastructure decisions. States and municipalities have underfunded mitigation activities, too. But leaders in both political parties continue to focus mainly on response and recovery funding.

Historically, US disaster management involved each man or woman for themselves in terms of readiness, and then relying on aid societies and the Red Cross for relief. This model changed a half century ago when the magnitude of damage  exceeded state coffers, and as the whole nation could see the effects of local disasters on their television sets. FEMA wasn’t created as a distinct federal agency to respond to disasters until 1979, and the Stafford Act which expanded federal authority for preparedness and mitigation wasn’t passed until 1988.

At the dawn of this century, we entered a new era of catastrophic damages, with mitigation now viewed as a critical component of disaster policy. Today, we have better knowledge about what can be done physically, socially, and economically before disaster strikes.

Will there be another hurricane of Katrina’s size? Yes. What we do as a nation to be truly ready for it is a question still awaiting a response.

On Monday, August 24, The Atlantic will mark the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by bringing together hundreds of people for a meaningful and productive dialogue. This event has been organized with Urban Institute experts who have studied the Katrina recovery effort and its effects on the changing national approach to disaster policy ever since—an approach that increasingly considers social, economic, political, and environmental perspectives. Please tune in here to watch the live broadcast beginning at 10 am EST.

This post is the third of a four-part series commemorating the 10-year milestone of Katrina’s landfall on Gulf Coast. Previous posts focused on ongoing challenges in New Orleans. The last post will focus on the nature of future disasters.


Tune in and subscribe today.

The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros
Tags Infrastructure
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center