Hurricane Katrina was a catastrophic natural disaster in 2005 that raised many questions about appropriate responses to disaster situations in general. The storm caused extensive damage on the Gulf Coast of the United States, leading to inquiries about how response could be improved in future incidents. Underlying debates about Hurricane Katrina were questions about what ethical principles should guide disaster preparedness and response, which can be understood by considering various ethical frameworks.
Background on Hurricane Katrina
Hurricane Katrina was one of the worst natural disasters in American history, causing much damage and devastation. The storm developed in August 2005, originating in the Atlantic Ocean, crossing over south Florida, and entering the Gulf of Mexico. While over the Gulf of Mexico, the storm grew in strength to a Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale, with winds in excess of 155 miles per hour. The storm made landfall along the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, tracking primarily over southern Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. At the time of landfall, Hurricane Katrina was downgraded, first to a Category 4 storm (wind speeds up to 155 miles per hour) and then to a Category 3 storm (wind speeds up to 130 miles per hour). Even so, the destructive power of a Category 3 storm is significant.
Damage from Hurricane Katrina were caused not only by high wind speeds, but also by flooding. Storm surge floods, which accompany hurricanes, led to the flooding of low-lying areas. In some cases, particularly in New Orleans, Louisiana, levees failed due to the high water levels. This was particularly devastating to New Orleans, because much of the city is below sea level, relying on the levees for protection. At one point, estimates were that as much as 80 percent of New Orleans was under water in the aftermath of the storm.
While the storm’s impact was felt most heavily in Louisiana and Mississippi, there were losses across the Gulf Coast. There were 1,833 deaths reported as a result of Hurricane Katrina. The actual number of deaths may be higher, as this includes only those that were known and reported. More than 1.2 million persons were asked to evacuate their homes and more than 300,000 homes were destroyed. Some persons refused to evacuate for, among other reasons, fear of leaving their pets behind. Many pets were left homeless after the storm, with at least 16,000 of them eventually being rescued.
Environmental concerns stemmed from the release of approximately 8 million gallons of oil. The cost of damages has been estimated at $108 billion, but the actual economic impact could be higher if increased gasoline prices, disrupted transportation lines, temporary unemployment of persons working in the areas affected by the hurricane, and similar factors are considered. Taken together, these numbers illustrate the extent of devastation resulting from Hurricane Katrina.
Ethics and Disaster Response
Effective response to disaster situations is a high-stakes endeavor, as it involves the protection of lives and property. This is exacerbated by the working definition of disaster, which refers to situations in which the immediately available resources are insufficient for handling the incident. Disaster response must be quick, yet carefully planned. It requires prioritization and goal-setting, but must be responsive to the needs of many different persons and constituencies. This is a challenging process and one which has the potential to raise numerous ethical questions in any given incident.
The International Association of Emergency Managers has developed a code of ethics that can serve to guide disaster response, which is often coordinated by professional emergency managers. The code specifies three key principles, or values, that must underlie responses. They include: respect for all persons, whether responders or members of the general public; commitment to effective service delivery, including responsible use of resources and focus on quality of services to develop trust with the public; and the importance of maintaining professionalism in all areas of work.
It is important to note that effective management of disasters includes more than the response when a disaster strikes, although this is generally the most publicized and visible aspect of emergency management. The above values suggest a responsibility to also prepare for disasters before they occur, such as through planning, conducting exercises, acquiring necessary resources, and so on; to explore options for reducing the harm posed by a disaster, if one were to occur, which is known as mitigation; and to assist individuals, organizations, agencies, businesses, and others in recovering from disasters that occur through rebuilding, relocation, financial assistance, and the like.
Further underlying the code of ethics and each of the above roles in disaster management—planning, mitigation, response, and recovery—is the imperative for every disaster situation to be evaluated afterwards. This allows future efforts to correct shortcomings identified in prior incidents, demonstrating respect, commitment, and professionalism for ensuring that known problems or concerns can be corrected so future disaster responses will be as effective as possible.
Ethics and Hurricane Katrina
The response to Hurricane Katrina was, in a word, problematic. Three major reports were issued in its aftermath. The White House issued a report titled “The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned”; the U.S. Senate issued a report titled, “Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared”; and the U.S. House of Representatives issued a report titled “A Failure of Initiative.” A review of these documents suggests two broad conclusions. The first is that some of the losses in the wake of Hurricane Katrina could have been prevented had government actions been more proactive, timely, and effective. The second is that a Hurricane Katrina scenario cannot be allowed to happen again, requiring changes in how disaster planning and response are conducted.
Ethical arguments underlie the above reports, as well as other criticisms of response to Hurricane Katrina. The ethical frame most commonly implied in debates about response to the storm is deontology. This frame rests on the concept of duty, with the notion that all persons are owed a duty—in this case, to effective emergency planning and response—and that duty is universally applicable, rather than being based on cost-benefit calculations or other judgments that could cause individuals to be treated differently. This is related to social justice, which argues that all persons should be treated fairly and equally, regardless of their personal characteristics, such as race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, religion, age, or medical condition. These perspectives overlap with the code of ethics discussed above, as they suggest that respect, commitment, and professionalism should be utilized in all aspects of disaster response, regardless of where, when, and for whom.
Actual problems experienced in the response to Hurricane Katrina raised important ethical questions. When does a government have the duty to require the residents within its jurisdictions to evacuate? What obligations does the government have to provide a means for evacuation to those without vehicles or financial resources? What should be the guiding values and procedures for undertaking search-and-rescue missions in flooded and highly-damaged areas? If residents are displaced, is there an obligation to provide alternative lodging and other services? What precautions should be taken for vulnerable populations, such as the elderly or very young, those in hospitals or other medical facilities, those in correctional institutions, or others, prior to, during, or after a major hurricane? How should law enforcement structure its response to maintain order in the aftermath of a major disaster? Do the media have an obligation to ensure the accuracy of the disaster-related stories they report?
Hurricane Katrina may be viewed through two lenses. The first is as a destructive natural disaster that affected lives and landscapes in the Gulf Coast region of the United States, and for which recovery efforts continued many years after the event. The second is as a disaster that changed the face of emergency management by focusing attention on areas critically in need of improvement. After Hurricane Katrina, legislation was passed that ranged from a reorganization of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to strengthen its role in preparing for and responding to disasters to the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, which requires emergency planners and responders to take the needs of companion animals into consideration. An increased emphasis was placed on ensuring that local, state, and federal agencies utilized the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and the National Response Framework (NRF) to promote consistency and communication between jurisdictions in emergency preparedness and response.
- Bates, Kristin A. and Richelle S. Swan. Through the Eye of Katrina: Social Justice in the United States. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2007.
- Brinkley, David. The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. New York: William Morrow, 2006.
- Brunsma, David L., David Overfelt, and J. Steven Picou, eds. The Sociology of Katrina: Perspectives on a Modern Catastrophe. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
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