From Disaster to Catastrophe: The Limits of Preparedness
Published on: Jun 11, 2006

Andrew Lakoff is assistant professor of sociology and science studies at U.C. San Diego. He is the author of a number of articles, including, with Stephen Collier and Paul Rabinow, "Biosecurity: Proposal for an Anthropology of the Contemporary," Anthropology Today, October 2004.

One evening the week after Hurricane Katrina struck, the intrepid television correspondent Anderson Cooper was featured on the Charlie Rose show. Cooper was still on the scene in New Orleans, the inundated city in the background and a look of harried concern on his face. He told Rose that he had no intention of returning to his comfortable life in New York City any time soon. Cooper had been among the reporters to challenge official accounts that the situation was under control, based on the contradiction between disturbing images on the ground and government officials’ claims of a competent response effort. He seemed shocked and dismayed by what he had seen in New Orleans, but was also moved, even transformed by his role as witness to domestic catastrophe. He had covered disasters in Somalia, Sri Lanka, he said, but never expected to see images like these in the United States: widespread looting, hungry refugees, corpses left on the street to decompose. Toward the end of the interview, Rose asked him what he had learned from the event. Cooper paused, reflected for a moment, and then answered: “we are not as ready as we can be.”

Insofar as the hurricane and its aftermath could be said to have a shared moral, it is this: we are not prepared—whether for another major natural disaster, a chemical/ biological attack, or some other type of disastrous event. This lesson structures response to the hurricane in terms of certain kinds of interventions and not others. And the basic elements of possible response are already in place. This implies that the potential for Katrina to be a politically transformative event may be limited; it is more likely to intensify and redirect processes that are already underway. To see this it is necessary to analyze the emergence and extension of “preparedness” as a guiding framework for domestic security in the United States.

Preparedness names both an ethos and a set of techniques for reflecting about and intervening in an uncertain, potentially catastrophic future.1 Unlike other issues potentially raised by Hurricane Katrina, such as racial inequality, concentrated urban poverty, the social isolation of the elderly, the short-sightedness of environmental planning on the Gulf Coast, or endemic governmental corruption, the demand for preparedness is a matter that enjoys widespread political agreement on the necessity of state-based intervention. In other words, in the imperative of preparedness, we find a shared sense of what “security” problems involve today. To be prepared is an injunction that must be followed. What can be a source of dispute is not whether we need to be prepared, but how to prepare and what we need to prepare for.

Preparedness is not wholly new, but has assembled and redirected disparate elements of already existing security apparatuses. I will focus here on its relation to two types of collective or public security that have co-existed in complementary and contradictory relation over the course of the last century: “population security” and “nation-state security.” These two types of security differ in their aims, objects, and in the forms of knowledge on which they rely. I will suggest that some of the tensions we have seen in the response to Katrina emerge from conflicting imperatives that are embedded in the techniques that preparedness has adopted from these two other types of security.

Population security aims to foster the health and well-being of human beings understood as members of a national population.2 Its mechanisms work to collectivize individual risk—of illness, accident, infirmity, poverty. Through calculation of the rates of such events across large populations over an extended period, population security apparatuses find regularities—birth and death rates, illness prevalence, patterns of consumption. They can then intervene to increase and sustain life. Examples of mechanisms connected to population security include: efforts to know and improve the public health; the promotion of social welfare through means such as guaranteed pensions; the construction of public works to improve urban hygiene; health and safety regulations on industrial development or on the circulation of commodities; and collective means of mitigating the risks presented by natural disasters. I will say more below about this latter set of techniques, which are now a part of the field of “emergency management.”

National security, in contrast, seeks to defend the territorial integrity of a nation-state against outside enemies through military and other means. Examples of efforts toward national security include: the military-industrial system of weapons development and procurement; intelligence gathering and threat assessment operations; economic aid programs designed to contain enemy expansion; and civil defense systems oriented toward defending the industrial and defense infrastructure in the event of an attack on the homeland. The intersection of the legacy of Cold War era civil defense with the expanding field of emergency management has provided the basis for many of the practices now associated with “preparedness.”

U.S. civil defense programs were developed in response to the rise of novel forms of warfare in the mid-twentieth century: first, air attacks on major cities and industrial centers in World War II, and then the prospect of nuclear attack during the Cold War. One key problem civil defense approached was: how to maintain the nation’s war-fighting and post-war recuperation capacities even in the face of a devastating attack? For civilian planners such as Herman Kahn, this question was imperative, given U.S. military doctrine: in order for the strategy of deterrence to work, the enemy had to be convinced that the U.S. was prepared to engage in a full scale nuclear war and had thus made concrete plans both for conducting such a war and for rebuilding in its aftermath.3 Kahn invented a method for “thinking about the unthinkable” that would make such planning possible: scenario development. Drawing up nuclear war scenarios and playing them out as simulations helped generate knowledge of current vulnerabilities in order to develop programs to mitigate them. The technique of scenario development went on to have a prolific career in other areas concerned with managing an uncertain future, such as corporate strategy, environmental protection, and international public health.4

Simultaneously, and in proximity to local civil defense efforts, the field of emergency management expanded in the 1960s and early 1970s in response to a series of devastating natural disasters. Federally-based emergency management had begun with efforts to systematize response to natural disasters, especially floods and fires, in the 1930s. These programs included both mitigation efforts such as levee construction and forest management, and recovery mechanisms such as the declaration of federal disasters in order to release assistance funds. In the 1970s, emergency management extended its purview to human-caused disasters such as toxic spills, nuclear accidents, and refugee crises.5

In contrast to civil defense, which operated according to the norms of hierarchical command-and-control associated with national security, emergency management had a distributed, decentralized structure. While its broader vision was federally-coordinated, a good deal of planning efforts took place at state and local levels, and involved loosely coupled relations among private sector, state and philanthropic organizations.6 Despite these organizational differences, civil defense and emergency management shared a similar field of intervention: potential future catastrophes. Thus emergency planners borrowed techniques for gauging and improving current readiness, such as scenarios and simulations, from civil defense. However, there was often dispute over whether locally-based emergency management programs should focus their planning efforts more on nuclear war or on likely natural disasters. These tensions foreshadow some of the issues raised in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, such as the role of the military and the distribution of authority between federal and local agencies in emergency situations.

In the aftermath of Katrina, it was common to see comparisons made between the failed governmental response to the hurricane and the more successful response to the attacks of 9/11. To an observer a decade before, it might have been surprising that a natural disaster and a terrorist attack would be considered part of the same problematic. And the image, three weeks after Katrina, of George W. Bush flying to the Northern Command in Colorado—a military installation designed for use in a national security crisis—to follow the progress of Hurricane Rita as it hurtled toward Texas might have been even more perplexing. To explain the seemingly intuitive association of these disparate types of events under the aegis of security, it is useful to look at the rationality through which civil defense and emergency management were institutionally merged.

When FEMA was founded during the Carter administration, the new agency consolidated federal emergency management and civil defense functions under the rubric of “all-hazards planning.” All-hazards planning assumed that for the purposes of emergency management, many kinds of catastrophes could be treated in the same way: earthquakes, floods, industrial accidents, and enemy attacks could be brought into the same operational space, given their common characteristics. Needs such as early warning, the coordination of response by multiple agencies, public communication to assuage panic, and the efficient implementation of recovery processes were shared across these various sorts of disaster. Thus all-hazards planning focused not on assessing specific threats, but on building capabilities that could function across multiple threat domains.

What was forged through the consolidation of multiple forms of disaster planning under the all-hazards rubric was not only a set of techniques and protocols, but also a shared ethos: the injunction to be prepared. The threats that preparedness experts approach cannot necessarily be avoided: for such events, it is “not a question of if, but when.” The point is to reduce current vulnerabilities and put in place response measures that will keep a disastrous event from veering into unmitigated catastrophe.

In the two and a half decades since the founding of FEMA, the agency has faced ongoing tension between its natural disaster planning task and its civil defense function. While Democratic presidents have tended to emphasize the former, Republican administrations have focused on the latter.7 FEMA’s assimilation into the Department of Homeland Security in the wake of 9/11 once again shifted its orientation more toward civil defense—in this case, toward preparation for a terrorist attack. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that DHS characterized its overall mission in the terms of “all-hazards” planning familiar from emergency management. As Michael Chertoff said in 2005 in unveiling the Department’s new “National Preparedness” Plan:

The Department of Homeland Security has sometimes been viewed as a terrorist-fighting entity, but of course, we’re an all-hazards Department. Our responsibilities include not only fighting the forces of terrorism, but also fighting the forces of natural disasters.8

The National Preparedness Plan proposed a linked set of mechanisms to bring disparate forms of threat into a common security field. These may be termed “techniques of preparedness”: examples include detection and early warning systems, simulation exercises, coordinated response plans, and metrics for the assessment of the current state of readiness. In its Plan, DHS selected 15 disaster scenarios as “the foundation for a risk-based approach.” These possible events—including an anthrax attack, a flu pandemic, a nuclear detonation, and a major earthquake—were chosen on the basis of plausibility and catastrophic scale. The detailed scenarios made it possible to generate knowledge of current vulnerabilities and the capabilities needed to mitigate them. Using the scenarios, DHS developed a menu of the critical tasks that would have to be performed in various kinds of major events; these tasks, in turn, were to be assigned to specific governmental and nongovernmental agencies. Scenario 10 was “Natural Disaster—Major Hurricane.” 9

From the vantage of preparedness, the failed response to Hurricane Katrina did not undercut the utility of “all-hazards” planning. Rather, it pointed to problems of implementation and coordination. This suggests that in the aftermath of the event, we are likely see the redirection and intensification of already-developed preparedness techniques rather than a broad rethinking of security questions. On the one hand, as official inquiries into the catastrophe get under way, there will be continued struggles over how to attribute blame for the failures in response. But along with this, there will be demands, addressed to various agencies charged with security tasks, to enact reforms that will improve our national preparedness. Such reforms will be primarily technical: in the context of the Gulf, rebuild the flood protection infrastructure; in large cities, improve evacuation plans; for preparedness planning in general, ensure that there are coherent systems of communication and coordination in crisis. More broadly, there will be scrutiny of the relationship between Federal, local and state responsibility for dealing with various aspects of disaster preparedness. Here it seems likely that reforms will push towards an increased federalization—and militarization—of emergency management.

In this process of attributing blame and coming up with technical reforms, it is important not to lose sight of the larger questions that the hurricane and its aftermath raise about the uses and meanings of “security” today. Here it is worth noting some of the differences between the objects and aims of population security and those of preparedness. In contrast to population security-based tasks like public health provision and poverty relief, preparedness is oriented to crisis situations and to localized sites of disorder or disruption. These are typically events of short duration that require urgent response.10 Their likelihood in a given place demands a condition of readiness, rather than a long-term work of sustained intervention into the welfare of the population. The object to be known and managed differs as well: for preparedness the key site of vulnerability is not the health of a population but rather the critical infrastructure that guarantees the continuity of political and economic order. And while preparedness may emphasize saving the lives of “victims” in moments of duress, it does not consider the living conditions of human beings as members of a social collectivity.

To consider Katrina a problem of preparedness rather than one of population security is to focus political questions about the failure around a fairly circumscribed set of issues. For the purposes of disaster planning, whose key question is “are we prepared?” the poverty rate or the percentage of people without health insurance are not salient indicators of readiness or of the efficacy of response. Rather, preparedness emphasizes questions such as hospital surge capacity, the coherence of evacuation plans, the condition of the electrical grid, or ways of detecting the presence of e coli in the water supply. From the vantage of preparedness, the conditions of existence of members of the population are not a political problem. One task for critical intervention in the coming months may be to keep attention focused on the role such conditions played in turning Katrina from disaster into catastrophe.


1 Stephen J. Collier, Andrew Lakoff and Paul Rabinow, “Biosecurity: Towards an Anthropology of the Contemporary,” Anthropology Today 20:5 (October 2004).

2 Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the College de France, 1975-76 (New York, 2003).

3 Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War (Harvard, 2005).

4 The lesson of a successful simulation based on a scenario is typically the same as the one that Cooper gleaned from Katrina: “we are not prepared.” However, it is focused on experts and leaders, rather than the public. For an example from international public health, see Laurie Garrett, The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance (New York, 1995).


6 William L. Waugh, Jr., “Terrorism, Homeland Security and the National Emergency Management Network,” Public Organization Review 3 (2003).

7 Robert Ward, Gary Wamsley, Aaron Schroeder and David B. Robins, “Network Organizational Development in the Public Sector: A Case Study of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA),” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 51 (11) (2000).

8 “Secretary Michael Chertoff, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Second Stage Review Remarks,” 13 July 2005, House Security Committee,

9 See the following documents, available on-line: National Preparedness Guidance, Homeland Security Presidential Directive 8: National Preparedness. Office of Homeland Security, April 27, 2005; and Planning Scenarios: Executive Summaries, The Homeland Security Council, July 2004.

10 Craig Calhoun, “A World of Emergencies: Fear, Intervention, and the Limits of Cosmopolitan Order,” The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 41 (2004).