CASE 3.1 THE KATRINA BREAKDOWN
Catastrophe struck the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, when the eye of
Hurricane Katrina made landfall near Buras, Louisiana, packing high storm
surges and sustained winds of over 140 mph. The Category 4 hurricane would
move slowly inland, carving a path of destruction across low-lying regions of
southern Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. See map.
Experts had long warned of the flood danger faced by New Orleans, much
of which lies below sea level in a bowl bordered by levees that hold back Lake
Pontchartrain to the north and the Mississippi River to the south and west. In
fact, in the summer of 2004, hundreds of regional and federal officials had met
in Baton Rouge for an elaborate simulation exercise. The fictional “Hurricane
Pam” left the city under 10 feet of water. The report from the simulation
warned that transportation would be a major problem.
The simulation proved disconcertingly accurate. Katrina caused breaches in
the levees, leaving about 80 percent of New Orleans under water and knocking
out electrical, water, sewage, transportation, and communication
systems. Katrina also flattened much of Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi,
flooded Mobile, Alabama, and leveled or inundated small cities and towns
across an area the size of Great Britain. Up to 100,000 people were stranded in
New Orleans for days in squalid and dangerous conditions awaiting relief and
Katrina was the deadliest hurricane to hit the United States in more than 75
years. The confirmed death toll exceeded 1200, with more than 80 percent of
the fatalities in Louisiana, predominantly in the New Orleans area. It was
among the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history. Nearly three-fourths of all
the homes in New Orleans, the fifty-ninth largest city in the United States, were
damaged or destroyed.
Poor coordination between local, state, and federal officials raises important
questions not only about U.S. disaster preparedness but also about federalism.
The following five government officials, in particular, were criticized for their
response to the distaster: New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, Louisiana
Governor Kathleen Blanco, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
Director Michael Brown, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael
Chertoff, and President George W. Bush. Before considering those criticisms,
we need to review the facts of the case.
Saturday, August 27, 2005
5:00 A.M.: Hurricane Katrina is in the Gulf of Mexico 435 miles southeast of
the Mississippi River Delta, gathering strength and moving forward at just 7
10:00 A.M.: FEMA Director Michael Brown appears on CNN to encourage
residents of southeastern Louisiana to leave as soon as possible for safety
5:00 P.M.: Governor Kathleen Blanco and Mayor C. Ray Nagin appear in a
press conference to warn residents of the storm. Nagin declares a state of
emergency in New Orleans.
7:25–8:00 P.M.: Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, calls
officials in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi to warn them of the severity
of the coming storm.
Sunday, August 28, 2005
7:00 A.M.: Gulf Coast residents awaken to the news that Katrina is a Category
5 hurricane, with winds blowing steadily at 160 mph. The eye is 250 miles
away, moving now at 12 mph.
9:25 A.M.: President George W. Bush calls Blanco, advising that she and Nagin
order a mandatory evacuation.
9:30 A.M.: With the storm due to come ashore in about 15 hours, Nagin orders
a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans.
4:15 P.M.: Mayfield conducts an electronic briefing for Bush, Brown, and
Chertoff and warns them of the danger of destruction and flooding in the wake
of Katrina. Brown also tries to prepare federal leaders for the magnitude of the
coming disaster: “We're going to need everything that we can possibly muster,
not only in this state and in the region, but the nation, to respond to this event.”
10:30 P.M.: The last people seeking refuge in the Superdome in New Orleans
are searched and allowed in. Between 8000 and 9000 citizens are in the stands
and about 600 are in a temporary medical facility. About 550 National Guard
troops provide security.
Monday, August 29, 2005
6:10 A.M.: The eye of Katrina makes its landfall near Buras, Louisiana.
6:30 A.M.: Buras is obliterated.
7:50 A.M.: A massive storm surge causes immediate flooding in St. Bernard
Parish and eastern neighborhoods of New Orleans. Water levels in most areas
are 10 to 15 feet.
10:30 A.M.: Bush declares emergency disasters in Louisiana, Mississippi, and
11:00 A.M.: Brown issues a memo ordering 1000 FEMA employees to the Gulf
Coast and gives them two days to arrive.
8:00 P.M.: Blanco speaks with Bush to impress upon him the destruction
caused by Katrina: “Mr. President, we need your help. We need everything
9:27 P.M.: FEMA officials give Chertoff's chief of staff a first-hand description
of the levee breaks and the extensive flooding in New Orleans.
9:30 P.M.: Bush goes to bed without taking any action on the Katrina disaster
or Blanco's request for assistance.
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
7:00 A.M.: In San Diego, staff tells Bush of the severity of the crisis along the
Gulf Coast and advises him to end his six-week vacation early. He agrees.
9:00 A.M.: Chertoff flies to Atlanta, where he will attend a conference on avian
10:00 A.M.: The breach in the 17th Street Canal has grown to about 200 feet.
Looting is reported all over New Orleans.
10:53 A.M.: Nagin declares a mandatory evacuation for the city and orders
police to forcibly take residents away, if necessary.
7:00 P.M.: Chertoff designates the Katrina destruction an “incident of national
Wednesday, August 31, 2005
10:00 A.M.: Blanco makes a joint announcement with FEMA that plans have
been laid to evacuate residents remaining in New Orleans to the Astrodome in
Houston. Air Force One flies low over the Gulf Coast so Bush can see the
damage. Lt. General Russell Honore is placed in charge of Joint Task
Force Katrina, the Pentagon's command center for disaster response.
12:15 P.M.: Bush political adviser Karl Rove advises Blanco that Bush wants
to federalize the evacuation of New Orleans.
2:20 P.M.: Blanco telephones Bush, informing him that federalization of
evacuation and the Louisiana National Guard will not be necessary.
3:00 P.M.: Bush convenes a task force at the White House for an hour to discuss
ways to improve the response.
4:11 P.M.: Bush addresses the nation in his first speech devoted to
7:00 P.M.: Martial law is declared in New Orleans. Nagin orders police to stop
rescue efforts and focus entirely on controlling the looting, which has become
Thursday, September 1, 2005
7:00 A.M.: In a radio interview, Chertoff calls the reports of thousands of
people stranded in and around the Convention Center in New Orleans
“rumors,” and states, “Actually, I have not heard a report of thousands of
people in the Convention Center who don't have food and water.”
Friday, September 2, 2005
6:20 A.M.: The head of emergency operations for New Orleans expresses his
frustration: “This is a national disgrace. FEMA has been here three days, yet
there is no command and control. We can send massive amounts of aid to
tsunami victims, but we can't bail out the city of New Orleans.”
10:35 A.M.: At the start of a tour of the Gulf Coast, Bush praises Brown:
“Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job.”
4:00 P.M.: Bush meets with Blanco, Nagin, and others aboard Air Force One.
An agitated Nagin demands that the president and the governor work out a
chain of command for the deployment of military personnel. After that, the
president would privately raise a sensitive question with the governor: Would
she relinquish control of local law enforcement and the 13,000 National Guard
troops from 29 states that fall under her command?
11:20 P.M.: Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card sends Blanco a fax indicating
that she need only sign an attached letter requesting that the federal government
assume control of the rescue and recovery in Louisiana, including oversight of
the National Guard troops.
Saturday, September 3, 2005
7:56 A.M.: Blanco faxes a letter to Card refusing the federal government's
attempt to assume control.
8:00 A.M.: Bush announces the deployment of 7000 active-duty troops that
would arrive in the Gulf Coast over the next three days.
9:30 A.M.: Brown announces that millions of army rations and water bottles
are now in the disaster area.
12:00 NOON: Buses arrives at the Convention Center to take people to safety
and comfort elsewhere.