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April 15, 2014
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"A hurricane does not necessarily result in disaster, but rather the inability of response structures to cope with the effects of the storm.". . . . . . . . Michael McGuire

What if Hurricane Katrina Hit in 2020?

Michael McGuire

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the coastline of Louisiana and became the most costly natural disaster in United States history. Similarly devastating domestic events—including not only natural threats, like Hurricane Katrina, but also man-made threats like the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and the more recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico—have demonstrated the need for effective emergency management and response. While emergency management has typically not been one of the foremost concerns of domestic politics in the US, disasters like these have heightened public interest, and preparedness is becoming more of a priority.

Over the years, Indiana University’s Professor Michael McGuire has watched emergency management move to the forefront of government planning. But has disaster response truly improved in the United States? In the most recent issue of Public Administration Review, McGuire collaborates with Debra Schneck to delve further into the factors surrounding effective emergency response with the article, "What if Hurricane Katrina Hit in 2020? The Need for Strategic Management of Disasters."

While there has been a significant amount of academic work in the field of disaster response management post-Katrina, McGuire and Schneck take a different approach. “We do not sound the alarm that is so common among post-9/11 and Katrina commentators, but rather offer a strategic framework to enhance our understanding of the importance of management and leadership before and during a Katrina-like event occurring in the year 2020.”

After the Katrina disaster a common response was to cast blame on FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. McGuire suggests that while some of the anger may be justified, a better understanding into FEMA’s role in responding to disasters is warranted. “We as a nation in general usually point to Washington,” he explains. “A lot of anger was directed at FEMA… but in fact local governments are the first responders to emergencies, and local and state governments have to ask FEMA to get involved.” According to McGuire, there are “clear levels of responsibility that all levels of government have” in preparing for disaster response.

McGuire’s fresh perspective has been developed by approaching emergency management similarly to how he has approached areas of study such as economic development or rural development, taking the prospective of collaboration and networking. “That’s what I look at primarily in emergency management, the extent to which governments and other agencies can work together in the context of responding to disasters and planning for disasters.”

Domestic disasters such as September 11th and Hurricane Katrina may actually serve to heighten the sense of urgency in preparing for disaster response. McGuire explains that after events like Katrina “governments around the country… local governments and non-profits… realized that having response plans in place for the eventuality of a disaster is very important. But it took these significant disasters for governments to realize that ‘this could happen to us’.”

In the discussion of emergency response it is also important to note that the focus is not on the “disaster agent,” such as a hurricane, but rather on the ability of management structures to effectively respond to the event that has taken place. A hurricane does not necessarily result in disaster, but the inability of response structures to cope with the effects of the storm may end disastrously.

Considering the eventuality of another storm, will lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina effectively alter the disaster response mechanisms to prevent the eventuality of another disaster? McGuire is encouraged by the direction the US has taken since 2005, however, he concludes that “emergency is highly dependent on the continuation of time, funding and the attention of the general public, media, and the political leadership.”

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