spea magazine

Speaking Out: Learning from Katrina—What Our Experts Say

Why We Won't be Prepared for the Next Katrina

Robert S. Kravchuk

Robert 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 to them.

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 in 1989.