Katrina’s lessons: Feds see much to improve

"This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina. We are going to review every action and make necessary changes so that we are better prepared for any challenge of nature, or act of evil men, that could threaten our people."

President George W. Bush, Sept. 15, 2005

The official government report on the impact and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina emphasizes that the disaster must be used "to identify systemic gaps and improve our preparedness for the next disaster — natural or man-made. We must move promptly to understand precisely what went wrong and determine how we are going to fix it."1

Summarized below are some of the report’s critical challenges and lessons learned from Katrina:

• Critical Challenge: Public Health and Medical Support

Hurricane Katrina created enormous public health and medical challenges, especially in Louisiana and Mississippi — states with public health infrastructures that ranked 49th and 50th in the nation, respectively. But it was the subsequent flooding of New Orleans that imposed catastrophic public health conditions on the people of southern Louisiana and forced an unprecedented mobilization of federal public health and medical assets. Tens of thousands of people required medical care. More than 200,000 people with chronic medical conditions, displaced by the storm and isolated by the flooding, found themselves without access to their usual medications and sources of medical care. Several large hospitals were totally destroyed and many others were rendered inoperable. Nearly all smaller health care facilities were shut down.

Lesson learned: In coordination with the Department of Homeland Security and other homeland security partners, the Department of Health and Human Services should strengthen the Federal government’s capability to provide public health and medical support during a crisis. This will require the improvement of command and control of public health resources, the development of deliberate plans, an additional investment in deployable operational resources, and an acceleration of the initiative to foster the widespread use of interoperable electronic health records systems.

• Critical Challenge: National Preparedness

Our current system for homeland security does not provide the necessary framework to manage the challenges posed by 21st century catastrophic threats. . . . While we have built a response system that ably handles the demands of a typical hurricane season, wildfires, and other limited natural and man-made disasters, the system clearly has structural flaws for addressing catastrophic events. During the federal response to Katrina, four critical flaws in our national preparedness became evident: Our processes for unified management of the national response; command and control structures within the federal government; knowledge of our preparedness plans; and regional planning and coordination.

Lesson learned: The federal government should work with its homeland security partners in revising existing plans, ensuring a functional operational structure — including within regions — and establish a clear, accountable process for all national preparedness efforts. In doing so, the federal government must:

  • ensure that executive branch agencies are organized, trained, and equipped to perform their response roles;
  • finalize and implement the National Preparedness Goal.

• Critical Challenge: Communications

Hurricane Katrina destroyed an unprecedented portion of the core communications infrastructure throughout the Gulf Coast region. The storm debilitated 911 emergency call centers, disrupting local emergency services. Nearly 3 million customers lost telephone service. Broadcast communications, including 50% of area radio stations and 44% of area television stations, similarly were affected. More than 50,000 utility poles were toppled in Mississippi alone, meaning that even if telephone call centers and electricity generation capabilities were functioning, the connections to the customers were broken. Accordingly, the communications challenges across the Gulf Coast region in Hurricane Katrina’s wake were more a problem of basic operability, than one of equipment or system interoperability. The complete devastation of the communications infrastructure left emergency responders and citizens without a reliable network across which they could coordinate.

Lesson learned: The Department of Homeland Security should review our current laws, policies, plans, and strategies relevant to communications. Upon the conclusion of this review, the Homeland Security Council, with support from the Office of Science and Technology Policy, should develop a National Emergency Communications Strategy that supports communications operability and interoperability.

• Critical Challenge: Logistics and Evacuation

The scope of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, the effects on critical infrastructure in the region, and the debilitation of state and local response capabilities combined to produce a massive requirement for federal resources. The existing planning and operational structure for delivering critical resources and humanitarian aid clearly proved to be inadequate to the task. The highly bureaucratic supply processes of the federal government were not sufficiently flexible and efficient, and failed to leverage the private sector and 21st century advances in supply chain management.

Lesson learned: The Department of Homeland Security, in coordination with state and local governments and the private sector, should develop a modern, flexible, and transparent logistics system. This system should be based on established contracts for stockpiling commodities at the local level for emergencies and the provision of goods and services during emergencies. The federal government must develop the capacity to conduct large-scale logistical operations that supplement and, if necessary, replace state and local logistical systems by leveraging resources within both the public sector and the private sector. The Department of Transportation, in coordination with other appropriate departments of the executive branch, must also be prepared to conduct mass evacuation operations when disasters overwhelm or incapacitate state and local governments.

• Critical Challenge: Human Services

Disasters — especially those of catastrophic proportions — produce many victims whose needs exceed the capacity of state and local resources. These victims who depend on the federal government for assistance fit into one of two categories: 1) those that need federal disaster-related assistance; and 2) those that need continuation of government assistance they were receiving before the disaster, plus additional disaster-related assistance. Hurricane Katrina produced many thousands of both categories of victims.

Lessons learned: The Department of Health and Human Services should coordinate with other departments of the executive branch, as well as state governments and nongovernmental organizations, to develop a robust, comprehensive, and integrated system to deliver human services during disasters so that victims are able to receive federal and state assistance in a simple and seamless manner. In particular, this system should be designed to provide victims a consumer-oriented, simple, effective, and single encounter from which they can receive assistance.

• Critical Challenge: Mass Care and Housing

Hurricane Katrina resulted in the largest national housing crisis since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The impact of this massive displacement was felt throughout the country, with Gulf residents relocating to all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Lessons learned: Using established federal core competencies and all available resources, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, in coordination with other departments of the Executive Branch with housing stock, should develop integrated plans and bolster capabilities for the temporary and long-term housing of evacuees. The American Red Cross and the Department of Homeland Security should retain responsibility and improve the process of mass care and sheltering during disasters.


  1. The White House. "The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned," February 2006. On the web at: www.whitehouse.gov/reports/katrina-lessons-learned/index.html.