Why We Won't be Prepared for the Next Katrina
Robert S. Kravchuk
Storms the scale of magnitude and destruction of Hurricane Katrina
are appropriately called “100-year storms.” This tagline
implies that storms bringing such destruction are a rare occurrence.
It does not mean that Katrinas happen every one hundred years,
like clockwork. Rather, it is a crude way of saying that the magnitude
of the storm is inversely proportional to its probability of occurrence.
Scientists know this as “Zipf’s Law” and it
describes the frequency and magnitude of many natural disasters,
including not only hurricanes, but also tornadoes, volcanoes,
and earthquakes. Obviously, an appropriate understanding of the
likelihood of a disaster’s occurrence is vital to government
officials in providing the budgetary funds necessary for responding
It is now clear that the United States—at all levels of
government—was unprepared for Katrina’s devastating
effects and their aftermath. A moment’s reflection, however,
will reveal that the situation could not have been otherwise.
To be fully prepared for such disasters, governments at all levels
would have had to have many hundreds of millions of dollars’
worth of materiel and personnel poised and ready to respond. But
the infrequency of these disasters cannot justify such a standing
investment, especially in the face of more immediate and acute
budgetary needs, for education, health, and welfare. Hurricane
preparedness simply does not compete effectively against big-ticket
items, like social security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Further,
it would not be rational to make such an overwhelming investment
in hurricane response, in that the next disaster may well be a
major earthquake, volcano, or terror attack. Almost by their nature,
it is difficult in the extreme to prepare for these calamities.
As a consequence, the United States was not prepared for Hurricane
Katrina, and won’t be for the next one either.
Robert Kravchuk is an associate professor at
SPEA, IUB. He teaches courses in public finance and budgeting,
financial management, and governmental financial accounting. He
currently serves as managing editor of Policy and Management Review.
Professor Kravchuk received his Ph.D. from Syracuse University