Responding to Katrina’s Lessons

Witnessing the horror of hurricane Katrina’s visit to New Orleans, Gulfport, Biloxi, and Mobile has left me shaken. This is not the first hurricane-imposed devastation I have seen. Hurricanes and earthquakes have visited America before — as have floods, blizzards, ice storms, and tornadoes — but never before have I seen so much devastation brought to bear on the United States mainland as has been witnessed in the heart of Dixie this week. We have become accustomed to watching the news media over-play the potential for disaster days before a storm is due to strike, and we take it in stride. However, sometimes they deserve the benefit of the doubt, and this time was one of them.

Once this nasty storm headed out over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, it was not necessary to have been a meteorologist to foresee the risk of harm to the city of New Orleans, or to predict the possibility of destruction beyond anything ever before experienced on our shores. Given the topography of New Orleans — surrounded on the north, south and west by mighty bodies of water whose normal levels are above the city’s altitude — it would have been reckless to bet against science that the storm surge would not penetrate a levee or that a Category Five hurricane would not dump enough water into the bowl the city sits in to drown it.

To his credit, the mayor of New Orleans ordered an evacuation of the city. For many reasons yet to be determined, thousands defied the order and common sense. And for other reasons yet to be uncovered, the municipality, the state, and the federal government failed or were unable to minimize the losses.

The assault on New Orleans and its neighbors to the east was neither surreptitious nor unpredictable. Katrina begged to be recognized for the disaster she was to become as she marched across Florida and headed out into the Gulf of Mexico. As she swelled with wind and warm water into a huge and violent force, she set a course for New Orleans and began pushing angry water and crashing waves at the ports of New Orleans, Gulfport, Biloxi, and Mobile, making clear her intention to wallop them all. When she reached winds of 155 miles per hours, only a gambler with nerves of steel would bet against her destroying everything in her path.

If Mississippi and Alabama could have rolled up their vital port cities and moved them, they would have. The devastation left where Gulfport and Biloxi once stood are proof of Katrina’s power. They will re-build in time and start again — for what man has built, man can and usually does replace. New Orleans may be a different story.

According to the highly respected neuropsychologist, Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg, in his fascinating book, “The Wisdom Paradox,” wisdom is the honorific for an expert who reaches senior status in society. If your field is psychology, I recommend Goldberg’s book; if you have reached senior status, I urgently recommend Goldberg’s book before too much brain matter deteriorates and you are unable to understand it; and if you are interested in why people around you seem brighter than you, I also recommend Goldberg’s book even though it is likely too late for you. There seems to have been an absence of the kind of wisdom that prescribes what to do about a looming problem evident in the planning during and after Hurricane Katrina. Many experts explained with great clarity what to expect from a Category Five storm headed at the Gulf Coast, wise men and women among them; many even accurately described in sharp detail what the likely impact would be on people and things once the storm touched land. But apparently the wisdom necessary to prescribe the action steps necessary to preserve human life was not forthcoming; or if it was, it fell on deaf ears.

To manage the consequences of Katrina will take expertise from many different disciplines. The storm created serious economic disruptions for the region and the nation. Handling the problems created by disruption of the nation’s oil supply may be the least of them, as it may be the easiest to repair. Insurance claims will likely rupture, if not break, the bank. Providing food, clothing and housing for a million American refugees who, simply put, lost everything, will be in the millions. Providing medical care in a region where hospitals have been rendered unusable is yet another problem. Rebuilding infrastructure, clean-up, and restoration of power and government services only partially fill out a list of necessary steps to restoring a major American city drowned by nature’s wrath. And when it is done, if indeed it is ever done, restoring the confidence of its citizens in the ability of government to protect them from future foreseeable assaults of nature or man may be the greatest challenge of all.

Prescribing Reasonable Security Services to the Public
The phrase “foreseeable risk” is a term used in the law. You will not find it in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. The closest you may come to it outside of legal circles is Proverbs XX11: “A prudent man foreseeth the evil.” Black’s Law Dictionary, Fifth Edition, describes foreseeability as “The ability to see or know in advance; hence, the reasonable anticipation that harm or injury is a likely result of acts or omissions.”

Those familiar with the law of negligence know from experience that only reasonably foreseeable acts of harm create a duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent them. We will stay away from general questions involving the risks of harm from Katrina other than those involving reasonably foreseeable risks of harm from criminal acts associated with disasters of the kind and magnitude we now face. We do this because we believe that, regardless of the cause of a disaster impacting a whole community, the associated risks of crime are so important they may need to become the immediate focus of attention even before other actions can be undertaken as has been shown by Katrina.

For reasons grounded in pride and politics, government agencies and government jurisdiction fiercely protect their territory, and cooperation among them may require an act of Congress. Recent history has proven that to be the case with law enforcement agencies, and Congress responded with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. On the local level, that cooperation has hopefully been established, and if so, security planning for events such as Katrina should have provided the following:

  1. The presence of a law enforcement force adequately trained and equipped to respond to the needs of the community during an emergency.
  2. Anticipating likely crime factors, including the identification of potential victims, the identification of potential criminal elements, the identification of likely targets, the identification of obstacles to providing an adequate force; the identification of necessary special equipment; the establishment of protocols for controlling the public, including curfews and mandatory evacuation procedures; and the establish of control and custody procedures and legal authorization over the population.
  3. Establishment of protocols for the provision of support for local police from other local law enforcement agencies, including corrections, sheriff’s departments, and deputized civilian organizations; other available municipal police agencies; state law and federal law enforcement personnel; national guard personnel; and federal military police officers. All of these to be directed by a unified command structure established in advance.
  4. Identification of housing, holding, and medical facilities available to house anyone in need. Every facility to be adequately staffed to provide management of the population and to have adequate services for feeding the population, with facilities for the enforcement of posted rules, the recorded identification of displaced persons, their evacuation if necessary, and power if municipal power is unavailable.
  5. The establishment of duly authorized procedures to govern enforcement activities. These include special powers of arrest; use of force, including deadly force; taking of property for law enforcement use; detention of persons without a warrant; supervision of police personnel; and the recording and special provisions for handling looting and arson.

If indeed such planning took place in advance of the storm, then many questions need to be asked about the lapses in law enforcement coverage that we saw and continue to see in New Orleans. Perhaps in time we will come to now why so many were exposed to so much risk for so long.

Training the Public
As a result of the call for an aware and prepared public by the federal government in response to the ongoing risk of terrorism, it might also be asked what would such an aware and prepared civilian be trained for in his or her role as responsible member of the community in time of an emergency. Government has not been particularly clear on the civilian role in civil defense, other than to advise self-sufficiency through minimal first aid training and the storage of food, water, and necessities. With the following training and preparedness, perhaps some of the tragedies we are now hearing about in New Orleans may have been spared:

  1. Civilians to be able to secure themselves and their property through training in security awareness and self-defense.
  2. Civilians to be trained in understanding the restrictions imposed on them in the application of force and deadly force upon another.
  3. Civilians to establish reliable communications with other civilians in support of mutual needs in an emergency.
  4. Civilians to be trained in emergency medical care and to maintain basic medical supplies, including a 30-day supply of prescription drugs on hand should they be confined to home or evacuated.
  5. Civilians to learn to defend themselves from carjackers and other sources of danger on the road.
  6. Civilians to learn to recognize and avoid potentially dangerous situations and to develop means for evacuating themselves from homes and public places in case they come under attack.
  7. Civilians to organize into groups for self-defense and to provide security for others unable to care for themselves.
  8. Workplaces and institutions such as schools and hospitals to provide training for all employees on security awareness and self defense, including techniques for responding to security threats to the work environment.
  9. Children to be trained to recognize potential threats to their safety and taught to respond such threats.
  10. Civilians to be trained to care for themselves when confronted by a civil disorder while traveling by seeking assistance from local authorities and having adequate emergency supplies of food, medication, and cash with them.

In the aftermath of Katrina, it is evident that sufficient prior planning to deal with the many consequences of the storm involving the security of the public were left unattended by both the government and the public. Choosing to do what makes us feel good as opposed to doing what is right often results in deadly consequences, especially when the power to enforce reason is not exercised. The decades of discussion over the unique vulnerability of New Orleans to a storm like Katrina resulted in nothing of value. After all of the risks were explored and agreed upon, New Orleans and the rest of the nation decided to wait and see what would happen when the expected event materialized. We as a nation chose to follow the false hope that it wouldn’t happen because it made us feel better than doing what was right.


During this diversion from the threat of terrorism that we continue to face at home, we have seen how well (or badly) we are prepared on the government level to deal with the threat and the consequences of a significant and dangerous assault on our community. We couldn’t stop it — but we could have, and we should have got the public out of the way. After the fact, we were slow to respond to the need for food, water, and housing for displaced members of the community. We were slow to respond to stranded, sick, and injured residents exposed to the elements while lying on roof tops waiting to be rescued. We were slow to prevent armed gangs of criminals from roaming the community. We were slow to bring in reinforcements to assist overtaxed police personnel. We were slow to anticipate the needs of hospitalized citizens, who we knew could not evacuate themselves. We cannot look to our intelligence community and ask: Why didn’t you warn us? We were adequately warned, and yet we failed once again to respond adequately to protect against foreseeable risks.

It should be abundantly clear that each of us has a fundamental duty to protect ourselves and others who turn to us for protection. We have been repeatedly advised by government to prepare ourselves for a war against terrorism in all forms. Of late, Nature has inflicted more punishment upon us at home than any other source. But that too can change without notice, and we are better safe than sorry.

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