“Addressing Federalism”, week 6 discussion 1


  • Review “The Katrina Breakdown” in Chapter 3. Setting aside the philosophicaland legal issues this case raises, identify and explain two to three managementor efficiency arguments for and against a more centralized response to largenational disasters like Hurricane Katrina.


Catastrophe struck the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, when the eye of Hurricane Katrina made landfall near Buras, Louisiana, packing high storm surges and sustained winds of over 140 mph. The Category 4 hurricane would move slowly inland, carving a path of destruction across low-lying regions of southern Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. See map.

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Experts had long warned of the flood danger faced by New Orleans, much of which lies below sea level in a bowl bordered by levees that hold back Lake Pontchartrain to the north and the Mississippi River to the south and west. In fact, in the summer of 2004, hundreds of regional and federal officials had met in Baton Rouge for an elaborate simulation exercise. The fictional “Hurricane Pam” left the city under 10 feet of water. The report from the simulation warned that transportation would be a major problem.

The simulation proved disconcertingly accurate. Katrina caused breaches in the levees, leaving about 80 percent of New Orleans under water and knocking out electrical, water, sewage, transportation, and communication systems. Katrina also flattened much of Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi, flooded Mobile, Alabama, and leveled or inundated small cities and towns across an area the size of Great Britain. Up to 100,000 people were stranded in New Orleans for days in squalid and dangerous conditions awaiting relief and evacuation.

Katrina was the deadliest hurricane to hit the United States in more than 75 years. The confirmed death toll exceeded 1200, with more than 80 percent of the fatalities in Louisiana, predominantly in the New Orleans area. It was among the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history. Nearly three-fourths of all the homes in New Orleans, the fifty-ninth largest city in the United States, were damaged or destroyed.

Poor coordination between local, state, and federal officials raises important questions not only about U.S. disaster preparedness but also about federalism. The following five government officials, in particular, were criticized for their response to the distaster: New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Michael Brown, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, and President George W. Bush. Before considering those criticisms, we need to review the facts of the case.


Saturday, August 27, 2005

5:00 A.M.: Hurricane Katrina is in the Gulf of Mexico 435 miles southeast of the Mississippi River Delta, gathering strength and moving forward at just 7 mph.

10:00 A.M.: FEMA Director Michael Brown appears on CNN to encourage residents of southeastern Louisiana to leave as soon as possible for safety inland.

5:00 P.M.: Governor Kathleen Blanco and Mayor C. Ray Nagin appear in a press conference to warn residents of the storm. Nagin declares a state of emergency in New Orleans.

7:25–8:00 P.M.: Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, calls officials in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi to warn them of the severity of the coming storm.


Source: National Hurricane Center

Sunday, August 28, 2005

7:00 A.M.: Gulf Coast residents awaken to the news that Katrina is a Category 5 hurricane, with winds blowing steadily at 160 mph. The eye is 250 miles away, moving now at 12 mph.

9:25 A.M.: President George W. Bush calls Blanco, advising that she and Nagin order a mandatory evacuation.

9:30 A.M.: With the storm due to come ashore in about 15 hours, Nagin orders a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans.

4:15 P.M.: Mayfield conducts an electronic briefing for Bush, Brown, and Chertoff and warns them of the danger of destruction and flooding in the wake of Katrina. Brown also tries to prepare federal leaders for the magnitude of the coming disaster: “We’re going to need everything that we can possibly muster, not only in this state and in the region, but the nation, to respond to this event.”

10:30 P.M.: The last people seeking refuge in the Superdome in New Orleans are searched and allowed in. Between 8000 and 9000 citizens are in the stands and about 600 are in a temporary medical facility. About 550 National Guard troops provide security.

Monday, August 29, 2005

6:10 A.M.: The eye of Katrina makes its landfall near Buras, Louisiana.

6:30 A.M.: Buras is obliterated.

7:50 A.M.: A massive storm surge causes immediate flooding in St. Bernard Parish and eastern neighborhoods of New Orleans. Water levels in most areas are 10 to 15 feet.

10:30 A.M.: Bush declares emergency disasters in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

11:00 A.M.: Brown issues a memo ordering 1000 FEMA employees to the Gulf Coast and gives them two days to arrive.

8:00 P.M.: Blanco speaks with Bush to impress upon him the destruction caused by Katrina: “Mr. President, we need your help. We need everything you’ve got.”

9:27 P.M.: FEMA officials give Chertoff’s chief of staff a first-hand description of the levee breaks and the extensive flooding in New Orleans.

9:30 P.M.: Bush goes to bed without taking any action on the Katrina disaster or Blanco’s request for assistance.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

7:00 A.M.: In San Diego, staff tells Bush of the severity of the crisis along the Gulf Coast and advises him to end his six-week vacation early. He agrees.

9:00 A.M.: Chertoff flies to Atlanta, where he will attend a conference on avian flu.

10:00 A.M.: The breach in the 17th Street Canal has grown to about 200 feet. Looting is reported all over New Orleans.

10:53 A.M.: Nagin declares a mandatory evacuation for the city and orders police to forcibly take residents away, if necessary.

7:00 P.M.: Chertoff designates the Katrina destruction an “incident of national significance.”

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

10:00 A.M.: Blanco makes a joint announcement with FEMA that plans have been laid to evacuate residents remaining in New Orleans to the Astrodome in Houston. Air Force One flies low over the Gulf Coast so Bush can see the damage. Lt. General Russell Honore is placed in charge of Joint Task Force Katrina, the Pentagon’s command center for disaster response.

12:15 P.M.: Bush political adviser Karl Rove advises Blanco that Bush wants to federalize the evacuation of New Orleans.

2:20 P.M.: Blanco telephones Bush, informing him that federalization of evacuation and the Louisiana National Guard will not be necessary.

3:00 P.M.: Bush convenes a task force at the White House for an hour to discuss ways to improve the response.

4:11 P.M.: Bush addresses the nation in his first speech devoted to Hurricane Katrina.

7:00 P.M.: Martial law is declared in New Orleans. Nagin orders police to stop rescue efforts and focus entirely on controlling the looting, which has become rampant.

Thursday, September 1, 2005

7:00 A.M.: In a radio interview, Chertoff calls the reports of thousands of people stranded in and around the Convention Center in New Orleans “rumors,” and states, “Actually, I have not heard a report of thousands of people in the Convention Center who don’t have food and water.”

Friday, September 2, 2005

6:20 A.M.: The head of emergency operations for New Orleans expresses his frustration: “This is a national disgrace. FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control. We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can’t bail out the city of New Orleans.”

10:35 A.M.: At the start of a tour of the Gulf Coast, Bush praises Brown: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

4:00 P.M.: Bush meets with Blanco, Nagin, and others aboard Air Force One. An agitated Nagin demands that the president and the governor work out a chain of command for the deployment of military personnel. After that, the president would privately raise a sensitive question with the governor: Would she relinquish control of local law enforcement and the 13,000 National Guard troops from 29 states that fall under her command?

11:20 P.M.: Bush Chief of Staff Andrew Card sends Blanco a fax indicating that she need only sign an attached letter requesting that the federal government assume control of the rescue and recovery in Louisiana, including oversight of the National Guard troops.

Saturday, September 3, 2005

7:56 A.M.: Blanco faxes a letter to Card refusing the federal government’s attempt to assume control.

8:00 A.M.: Bush announces the deployment of 7000 active-duty troops that would arrive in the Gulf Coast over the next three days.

9:30 A.M.: Brown announces that millions of army rations and water bottles are now in the disaster area.

12:00 NOON: Buses arrives at the Convention Center to take people to safety and comfort elsewhere.


The events between August 27 and September 3 can be viewed productively from several standpoints: disaster management (based on the Katrina experience, how well would the United States handle another major terrorist attack?), organization theory (should FEMA have remained an independent agency?), and leadership (what would a Giuliani or an Eisenhower or a Johnson have done?). But here we want to consider these events in terms of intergovernmental relations. For that limited purpose, the following issues seem particularly relevant.

Did Nagin Have a Plan? Despite all appearances to the contrary, the city of New Orleans had a plan. In 2000, city officials and various consultants prepared a 14-page booklet “City of New Orleans Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan.” It offered a series of clear-cut guidelines that seemed to be ignored by Nagin, a former executive with Cox Communications who was elected in 2002. After suggesting that “evacuation zones” based on probable storm flooding should be used as the basis of mass evacuation, the plan advised that such zones “will be developed pending further study.” They never were. The city of New Orleans followed virtually no aspect of its own plan in the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina and failed to implement most federal guidelines. Douglas Brinkley writes:

Apparently unimpressed by the emergency management plan, even though it was posted on the City Hall Web site . . . Nagin behaved in a hesitant, perplexing fashion. The plan was the collective wisdom of an entire generation of New Orleans political thinking, going back as far as those who had grappled with Hurricane Betsy in 1965. The plan instructed that when a serious hurricane approached, the city should evacuate 72 hours prior to the storm to give “approximately 100,000 citizens of New Orleans [who] do not have the means of personal transportation” enough time to leave. Mayor Nagin also ignored FEMA guidelines, which urged City Hall to “coordinate the use of school buses and drivers to support evacuation efforts.”

Before any disaster, the first responsibility of local responders is to evacuate hospitals, nursing homes, and special needs populations. Aside from some informal plans to rely on churches and neighborhoods to get people out, the city had not developed any solution to that challenge in time for Katrina.

Where Did the Federal Money Go? In 2003, the federal government gave New Orleans a $7 million grant for a communications system that would connect all the region’s first responders. Soon after the hurricane struck, the radios used by police, firefighters, and the mayor drained their batteries. Then their satellite phones would not recharge. And, of course, landline and cell phones went out. For two days the mayor and his emergency team were cut off from the outside world.

That did not need to happen. For example, emergency officials across Florida are linked by a system of satellite phones, and lines of authority between local and state officials are sharp. And in Texas, ham operators share a place at the table in the emergency bunker in Austin along with the high-tech communication experts.

The bigger question is, Why were federal funds that might have been used to strengthen the levees around New Orleans diverted to widening ship channels? Brinkley writes:

Over the years, improvements were made [in the 17th Street Canal], patches introduced and the need for repairs noted and sometimes neglected. Incredibly, no one was in charge: no one was fully responsible for overseeing just who was doing what to the levees. Various entities had a hand in the fortunes of the system—and fortunes are all that the levee system meant to a great many of the greedy scoundrels involved through the years. . . . For example, in the months just before Katrina, while a $427,000 repair to a crucial floodgate languished in inexcusable bureaucratic delay, [the board of directors of the Orleans Levee District] went ahead with happier pursuits, building parks, overseeing docks that it had constructed, and investing in on-water gambling . . .

“We Need Everything You’ve Got” That is what Blanco, who became governor in 2003, told Bush the day the storm hit. The question of whether she requested federal government assistance as effectively or as forcefully as the catastrophe demanded still haunts her. And yet, with the exception of Nagin, no one was in a better position than her to know precisely what was needed and how soon. Not until Thursday did she come up with specifics: 40,000 troops (a number she says she “pulled out of the air”); urban search-and-rescue teams; buses; amphibious personnel carriers; mobile morgues; trailers of water, ice, and food; base camps; staging areas; housing; and communication systems. State officials concede, according to Time, that Blanco had unrealistic expectations of precisely what the federal government could do. “She thought it would be more omniscient and more omnipresent and more powerful than it turned out to be.”

Getting Through to the President Wednesday morning Blanco tried to telephone the president to tell him that the expected federal resources still had not arrived. In response to the call, the White House did not make the president available. After attending some official ceremonies, she returned to her office and tried to reach the president again. After a short delay, her call was transferred to the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. During the course of the morning, Blanco did receive calls from presidential surrogates, including one from Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who was on vacation in Maine. According to Blanco, Card didn’t exactly promise help; rather, he affirmed that he believed he could help her.

Brown’s Method of Operation Bush appointed Brown head of FEMA in 2003. At the time, he was staff attorney and second in comand. He had been brought into the agency by his longtime friend Joseph Allbaugh, then agency head. Before joining FEMA, Brown had been the head of the International Arabian Horse Association.

Now, three years into the new job, his agency was being inundated by requests from thousands of organizations, jurisdictions, and individuals—requests for medical equipment, chlorine bleach, cleaning supplies, generators, body bags, inoculations, tents, boats, and the like. During this period, Brown’s focus was on the “recovery,” which was to be executed as carefully and precisely as possible. Otherwise, so he thought, FEMA risked lawsuits, distributional problems, and sundry other worries. Time reports that foreign nations, responding to urgent calls from Washington, readied rescue supplies, then “were told to stand by for days until FEMA could figure out what to do with them.” Florida airboaters complained that they had an armada ready for rescue work but FEMA wouldn’t let them into New Orleans. Brown defended his agency’s measured steps saying aid “was to be coordinated in such a way that it’s used most effectively.”

Brown’s Boss At 7:00 P.M. Monday, Brown received an urgent telephone call from his FEMA representative in New Orleans. The call had a sobering effect on Brown; for the first time, he fully understood the gravity of the situation. Convinced that Blanco was “dysfunctional,” Brown called his boss, Chertoff, pleading for help. It was the first time Brown and Chertoff had spoken together that day.

Eight months earlier, Bush had appointed U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Chertoff to head the nation’s second-largest cabinet agency, the sprawling Department of Homeland Security. As the head of the criminal division in the Justice Department in 2001, Chertoff had helped formulate the government’s response to the 9/11 terror attacks. Now, as Homeland Secretary, Chertoff was in charge of all major disasters—whether from international terrorism, natural causes, or infrastructure collapse. Until Chertoff designated it “an incident of national significance” and appointed someone (presumably the FEMA director in the case of hurricanes) as the “principal federal official,” relief would be halting at best. Without that designation, Brown could not legally take charge, giving orders to local and state officials and overseeing deployment of National Guard and other U.S. military personnel. Unfortunately for the people in New Orleans, Brown could not convince Chertoff that things were going as badly as Brown (and the media) were suggesting. Brown tried to maneuver around Chertoff, to appeal directly to the president, but it was hard to get through to the White House.

A Government Accountability Office report noted that the delay in Chertoff’s response was critical: “The DHS secretary designated Hurricane Katrina as an incident of national significance on August 30—the day after a final landfall. However, he did not designate the storm as a catastrophic event, which would have triggered additional provisions of the National Response Plan (NRP) calling for a more proactive response. . . . In the absence of a timely and decisive action and clear leadership responsibility and accountability, there were multiple chains of command, a myriad of approaches and processes for requesting and providing assistance, and confusion.”

A DVD for GWB Early Friday morning, the president boarded Air Force One for the flight to Mobile, Alabama, as his first stop on his inspection of the disaster area. Because White House staffers were uncertain that he actually understood what was going on—had “situational awareness,” as they say in the military—they had prepared a compilation of news coverage recorded onto a DVD for him to watch during the three-hour flight.

“I Don’t Know Whose Problem It Is” In a radio interview the day before Bush’s flight to the disaster area, Nagin had said, “I don’t know whose problem it is. I don’t know whether it’s the governor’s problem. I don’t know whether it’s the president’s problem, but somebody needs to get their ass on a plane and sit down, the two of them, and figure this out right now.”

Later the next day that’s pretty much what happened. Bush met with Blanco and Nagin aboard Air Force One on the tarmac of the New Orleans Airport. Nagin said, “Mr. President, Madame Governor, you to need to get together on the same page, because of the lack of coordination, people are dying in my city.”

Three Perspectives on Katrina and Federalism

Not surprisingly, the worst natural disaster in U.S. history generated many scholarly articles. This section briefly summarizes three recent ones that offer different interpretations of what went wrong, what went right, and what needs to be done. Each provides a basis for class discussion.

(1) Stephen M. Griffin, professor of constitutional law at Tulane, argues in “Stop Federalism before It Kills Again” that the national government might need to become more directive in numerous areas. Although much attention has been focused on the response and recovery that followed Katrina’s landfall, Griffin explores the role of federalism prior to Katrina. Why would the federal government fund levee construction then turn different parts of the project over to four different local sponsors who worked at cross-purposes? Why would it help fund the purchase of communication technology and not require that states and local governments develop interoperable communications? The general answer is that, according to Griffin, federalism is as much a commitment to localism as it is to states’ rights. As Chertoff has stated on several occasions, disasters are typically to be managed at the “lowest possible, geographic, organizational, and jurisdictional levels.” To the contrary, Griffin thinks the failure to respond to Katrina exposed one of the few real structural weaknesses in the U.S. Constitution: a lack of a mechanism to coordinate the work of local, state, and national governments.

Interestingly, federal responses to natural disasters—events nearly by definition beyond the capacity of state and local governments—is a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact, it took many decades of repeated disasters such as the vast flooding unleashed by the Mississippi River in 1927 to convince national officials that the federal government had a role to play in alleviating the effects of natural disasters. For much of U.S. history, victims of natural disasters were on their own. “The federal system as it exists today,” Griffin writes, “is our system, not that of the founding generation. We—generations still alive—created it and we continue to change it. The best example during the Bush administration was the No Child Left Behind Act, legislation that involved an unprecedented intrusion into a subject, education, that everyone used to argue should be left to the states.”

(2) Martha Derthick, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, argues that the “governmental response to Katrina was not the unalloyed failure that is often protrayed. The response was a mixture of success and failure. Successes occurred when a foundation had been laid for intergovernmental cooperation, as with the largely successful pre-landfall evacuation of Greater New Orleans, the multistate mobilization of the National Guard, and the search and rescue operations of the U.S. Coast Guard and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.” The failures include New Orleans’ failure to limit its growth, its lack of flood protection plans, and the influence of politics on flood protection there.

Above all, Derthick argues, “do no harm to the first responders. Dependency on them is inescapable. Indeed, they could become the country’s only functioning and legitimate governments in case of a successful terrorist attack on Washington, D.C. Continue to think of federalism in the traditional way, as a source of strength through cooperation.”

(3) Marc Landy at Boston College calls Katrina a “mega-disaster” and argues that such events put federalism to an especially difficult test because they require speed, efficiency, decisiveness, and effective coordination. Faced with such events, the big advantage of federalism, he maintains, is its greater flexibility, responsiveness, and capacity to mobilize mutual aid. “It presumably benefits from the unique virtues that each level of government and that the citizen himself or herself possess. These virtues compensate for its inherent complexity and redundancy. The example of personal responsibility and neighborly concern is a superior substitute for government intervention.”

Clearly, Landy conceptualizes federalism as being composed of four dimensions: three levels of government and the civic realm. With regard to the latter, it’s worth recalling that Alexis de Tocqueville recognized in the early nineteenth century that “government can’t match the energy and resourcefulness of citizen cooperating informally or through voluntary associations.”

Landy finds the direst examples of civic failure in the city of New Orleans, and an especially edifying example of its success in Mississippi. Landy does not sugarcoat the former:

The impression given by the media was that those who did not get out of New Orleans could not, either because they had no car or were disabled. This impression stuck even though the visuals accompanying those media reports showed streets crowded with abandoned cars. A congressional report confirmed that the pictures were more reliable than the words. It stated that more than 250,000 cars remained in the city during the storm and the cars were found parked in the driveways of many of the dead. The report chastised the governor of Louisiana, and the mayor of New Orleans for being slow to issue mandatory evacuation orders, and those individuals “share the blame” for incomplete evacuation. Resorting to the verb “share” shows just how reluctant the report writers were to concede that not all bad things that happen are the fault of the government. Those car owners who fail to evacuate in the face of mandatory evacuation orders that, however tardy, still left them plenty of time to leave, do not share in the blame, they are to blame. If indeed a major, or perhaps even the major, cause of death from Katrina was a failure to obey a mandatory evacuation order, this puts the whole Katrina problem in a different light. It shifts the blame from errors made by the various levels of government to the actions of the populace itself.

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