Symbolic and Practical Interpretations of the Hurricane Katrina Disaster in New Orleans
Published on: Jun 11, 2006

David Alexander is professor of disaster management at the University of Florence in Italy. He is the author of Natural Disasters (1993), Confronting Catastrophe (2000) and Principles of Emergency Planning and Management (2002).


In the 1960s some valuable sociological research was carried out on the plight of black people in US disasters (Anderson 1970a) and also on the role of the military in such events (Anderson 1969, 1970b). Although these topics have not been totally neglected since then, they have tended to lapse in social scientists' agendas (cf. Wright 1997). Now the disaster in New Orleans has thrown them once again into high relief.

To begin with, Hurricane Katrina quickly became a "class-quake" with divisions arranged along lines of social status and ethnic origin (Blaikie et al. 1994 p. 6, Fothergill et al. 1999). Secondly, the descent of emergency relief activities into increasingly strenuous attempts to restore law and order was strikingly anomalous with respect to other disasters elsewhere (Johnson 1987).

Two conceptual models can be applied in order to understand this situation. The first, a symbolic model developed from popular culture, can only be utilised in a negative sense. The second is an evolutionary model that analyses disaster response in terms of the global development of civil protection.

First model: disaster as spectacle

The "Hollywood" conception of disaster is one in which a destructive event leads to the spontaneous breakdown of the social order (Couch 2000). People's true natures are revealed, and violent and egotistical traits are the dominant ones. In the descent into anarchy people are divided into heroes and villains. Among the heroes, a leader spontaneously emerges, more by natural selection than any form of training or preparation, and law, order and calm are restored using drastic means to suppress the villains and stop the anarchy (Mitchell et al. 2000).

The "Hollywood" model, as one might call it, may be ridiculously simplistic but it is endlessly repeated in popular entertainment. Surprisingly, few attempts have been made to assess the extent to which it conditions the views on disaster held by ordinary people. It is certainly often at the back of journalists' portrayals of disastrous events. One wonders whether it has begun to assume the status of a self-fulfilling prophecy, such that in disaster people conform to it because that is what they are familiar with from television, radio and the print media (Bahk and Neuwirth 2000).

Second model: disaster as a problem of civil protection

The second conceptual model charts the progress of emergency preparedness in recent times. Modern civil protection1 emerged gradually from its progenitor civil defence during the period since 1970 (Drabek 1991). Various basic principles have been established, including the following:

  1. Military forces are not the best source of civilian disaster management. Their organisation, rationale and command structures are not fully appropriate to the management of a typical civilian emergency. Hence, in most cases the military should be the forces of last resort, and disasters should normally be managed by civilian organisations that are both more accountable and more sensitive to civilians' needs (Wright 1997).

  2. Good disaster preparedness is a collective effort that requires a system of organisation and administration which is integrated vertically from local to national levels and horizontally among neighbouring jurisdictions (Trim 2004).

  3. The gradual evolution of civil protection requires members of the public to assume progressively more responsibility for their own safety and security. This does not mean abandoning them to their own devices, but ensuring that they understand the risks of disaster that they run and have the means to face up to them. Traditional, indigenous and social coping mechanisms need to be reinforced wherever appropriate (Kirschenbaum 2004).

  4. Civil defence is a progenitor of civil protection. In an epoch of global terrorism the two must co-exist. The maintenance or restoration of law and order may be fundamental to civil defence, but civil protection is based on the encouragement of social solidarity rather than the repression of anti-social tendencies (Dynes and Quarantelli 1997).

A further important principle to take into account when analysing disaster situations is that what transpires will be a function of both the event itself and the pre-existing conditions, including:

  1. the level of preparedness of government agencies, non-governmental organisations and the general public;

  2. the quality (if not the presence or absence) of emergency planning at the institutional and community levels;

  3. the degree of homogeneity or division in society, including the level of equality or inequality.

Hurricane Katrina: a preliminary analysis

These two models represent diametric opposites. Where is the Hurricane Katrina disaster in this spectrum?

New Orleans is a vibrant and creative place but one in which poverty and deprivation afflict the inner city. Gang warfare and a flourishing market in illicit drugs have contributed to a murder rate that is ten times the national average. Some 120,000 residents lack cars and 80 percent of the inner city is floodable, to depths that in places exceed three metres. The year before Hurricane Katrina was marked by a debate on the problems of evacuating the coastal towns and cities of the Gulf of Mexico. Scenario-builders had predicted in detail what would occur (Laska 2004, Nolan 2005). Lack of revenue and other resources, lack of political will, free-market ideology, lack of environmental protection, destruction of wetlands and excessive reliance on fallible structural protection are all factors that conspired to make the eventual—and inevitable—disaster what it was. Citizens of New Orleans had been warned that help would be inadequate, especially regarding evacuation. Yet they were not given any alternatives on which to build a strategy of resilience.

Apart from a notable absence of individual, emergent "heroes", the "Hollywood" model seemed to fit quite well to the mayhem that occurred in the wake of Katrina. Yet the reality on the ground defied such a glib analysis. In post-Katrina New Orleans it was impossible to gauge the real significance of sniping, rape, murder and looting (the last of these a myth in many other disasters). Commonly, the darker side of disaster response is exaggerated by the claims of witnesses in the field who are overwhelmed by what they experience (Ploughman 1995). The mass media tend to dramatise events to the extent that damage becomes "devastation" and a shot fired becomes "shootings", or even "urban warfare". Moreover, some looters were people who strove to find basic supplies for themselves and others who were left behind in the city.

Whether or not the anarchy and violence should be played down, there is no doubt that the situation was without a precedent among recent natural disasters. As both commentators and participants have remarked, it resembled post-invasion Baghdad rather than a US metropolitan area (Tracisk 2005).

In disaster situations, epidemics are rare and diseases are usually only a threat if they are already endemic in the afflicted area (De Ville de Goyet 1999). The same is true of social diseases, and in this respect disaster opens an extraordinarily revealing window on the inner workings of society.

Images of heavily armed police and soldiers patrolling the flooded streets of New Orleans bring to mind the extraordinarily ham-fisted response to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, when people were spontaneously shot dead as looters while foraging in the wreckage of their own homes (Hansen and Condon 1989). I know of no other case of short-term, post-disaster evacuation in which evacuees had to be sought by police, soldiers and dogs and taken away in handcuffs. It is axiomatic and well-known in the emergency management community that compulsory evacuation orders are impossible to enforce: attempts to impose them are as time-consuming as they are futile (Perry 1994). Yet it is less appropriate to criticise the instantaneous response than the lack of foresight and preparation that might have made draconian measures unnecessary.

Whatever the resonance—or lack of it—of the "Hollywood" model, the 'civil-defence-civil protection' model leads to some interesting and pertinent observations on what happened in New Orleans. Seen from the perspective of an outsider, the initial response to the disaster was more characteristic of civil defence than of civil protection: i.e., it harked back to an earlier time when civilian disasters were tackled in a paramilitary way under the assumption that the principal problem was how to restore law and order, rather than how to restore health, safety and dignity to the affected population (Alexander 2002).

Since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 some influential commentators have argued that US disaster response has taken a step backwards (Mitchell 2003). Paradoxically, the renewed emphasis on preparedness seems to have weakened the Federal capability. Under President Clinton and James Lee Witt, FEMA made disaster prevention the central rationale of its approach. In reality, despite the desire to make the reorientation from response to events prior to prevention of their consequences, such was the press of disasters in the USA of the 1990s that two-thirds of FEMA's budget nevertheless went on post-disaster emergency efforts (National Journal 1993). However, when FEMA was subsumed into the Department of Homeland Security its budget was severely cut and the revenue diverted to preparing to respond to terrorist outrages. As there is an infinity of possible scenarios in both conventional and CBRN terrorism, such events are very expensive to prepare for, as well as being for the most part hypothetical (Bailey 1996).

With these reflections in mind, and with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to point the finger of accusation at the US Federal Government (Dynes 1991), but it is not exactly fair to do so. In a federal republic one cannot expect federal institutions to override state and local ones unless the national interest is very directly threatened, and then only as far as the threat should be countered. FEMA's key role used to be one of encouraging the states and cities (their SEMAs and LEMAs, state and local emergency management agencies) to prepare for disaster. The reduction of that role may have been a crucial factor in the failure of initial responses to Hurricane Katrina, rather more than the failure of federal institutions to respond adequately.

The US National Weather Service is famous for its ability to forecast hurricane activity and paths (Sheets and Williams 2001). Hurricane Katrina joins the list of major events (such as death of 23,000 people in the eruption of the Colombian volcano Nevado del Ruíz in 1985) in which prediction and warning became disengaged (Voight 1990). Warning systems involve technological-scientific, administrative and social components (Lindell and Perry 1987). The heart of the failure in New Orleans lay in the evaluation and translation of scientific information into public action. Moreover, the inefficiency of evacuation from New Orleans during Hurricane Ivan in September 2004 should have furnished some clear lessons, for example regarding the staffing and extension of contra-flow evacuation of vehicles on freeways and the organisation of an efficient public transit evacuation system (Laska 2004, Wolshon 2001). Instead, it seems that the well-known "gambler's fallacy" prevailed (Burton and Kates 1964): Ivan was a near-miss hurricane, that may have implied that New Orleans had already had its quota of major threats for the time being.


In 1972 Sims and Baumann published an article in Science magazine which suggested that responses to similar tornado threats differed between the north and the south of the United States. Southerners, they opined, were more fatalistic and less practical than northerners and hence less prepared for the damage, destruction and casualties. Since then, few other articles have tackled this theme, perhaps because culture is extraordinarily difficult to analyse, and perhaps because Sim’s and Baumann's conclusions had overtones of cultural determinism.

This is a field in which there are no absolutes. Shortage of resources need not deter a community from organising itself (Buckle et al. 2003). Poverty need not be synonymous with vulnerability and incapacity (Alam 2005). Good things can come out of adversity. One striking aspect of the intellectual response to Hurricane Katrina is that left- and right-wing commentators have sought diametrically opposite moral conclusions from the same evidence (e.g. Tracinsk 2005, Wisner 2005). Either excessive reliance on welfare has weakened the underclass in New Orleans or the same has resulted from lack of welfare. At the time of writing this, barely two weeks after the hurricane, it is impossible to predict what lessons will be judged important and to what extent they will be taken on board. However, it is clear that substantial lessons are there to be learned at the federal, state and local level, and regarding environmental protection, early warning, evacuation, emergency planning and reconstruction. In emergency preparedness most positive changes follow specific events, which are thus catalysts for legislative, institutional, organisational, technological and social change. Seldom has there been such a good opportunity for this to occur as in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and so we must hope that the proposals that emerge are intelligent, practical, far-sighted and broadly acceptable.


1 The term 'civil protection' is widely used around the world to denote emergency planning and management activities, in part because it translates easily from English into some of the major languages (Horlick-Jones et al. 1995). In the USA the synonym 'emergency preparedness' is used instead, though in Canada 'civil protection' remains current.


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