Hurricane Katrina: A Man-Made Crisis?

Abstract

This case focuses on the long and short-term factors that contributed to making Hurricane Katrina a humanitarian emergency in the City of New Orleans. The case historically traces factors and patterns of unsustainable development that pushed more people in harm's way of Hurricane Katrina. It presents the constant struggle faced by the city agencies in keeping the city dry and how all their efforts focused on engineering the environment. At the turn of the century, New Orleans was as vulnerable as ever, if not more, making one ask if the transactions between human society and the environment had been worth it. The levees accentuated its bowl-like features, the pumps caused subsidence and sinking of the city, and the destruction of wetlands opened up its frontiers to an imminent "Big One". Not only did these efforts fail in keeping away the waters, but also by allowing expansion of the city into the lower ground these efforts placed more of the population at risk. Economically and racially segregated, New Orleans's poor and black population occupied the vulnerable lower ground of the city. In the face of frequent hurricanes, the city agencies did relatively little to prepare for a hurricane of the scale of Hurricane Katrina. Thus, a marked lack of preparedness in systems and human capacity existed, despite previous disasters. Finally, the case looks into the response of the government to Hurricane Katrina. As the case details, the failure of leadership at the federal (ex. Department of Homeland Security, FEMA,), state (ex. Louisianna Governor Kathleen Blanco) and city (ex. New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin) level transformed the disaster into an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.

The teaching objective of the case is for students to see the complex combination of causes and actions (or inactions) that produce a humanitarian emergency. The case is appropriate for courses on social policy, emergency assistance and disasters, as well as public management.

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