Academic journal article Organization Development Journal

Hurricane Katrina and Organization Development: Part 1. Implications of Chaos Theory

Academic journal article Organization Development Journal

Hurricane Katrina and Organization Development: Part 1. Implications of Chaos Theory

Article excerpt


The main tenet of Chaos Theory is that, from a conceptual-process perspective, dysfunctional systems and apparent disarray and displacement are a normal aspect of adaptation to high-stress conditions. Part I of this article presents research from the scholarly literature that supports the contention that, in large part, the disorganization of personal, social, organizational, and political systems in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is part of the adaptation process of making order out of chaos. In fact, much of the empirical research from distinct areas such as disaster recovery, crisis management in business, and psychosocial aspects of stress embrace the conceptual and theoretical framework of Chaos Theory. Due to rapidly changing developments, Part II of this series, on recovery and reconstruction efforts post-Katrina, will appear as a separate paper in an upcoming issue of ODJ.


Hurricane Katrina will redefine the term 'multiple-stressor event', a ubiquitous reference to high-impact disaster events. Although the United States has experienced major natural disasters in its history (e.g., San Francisco earthquake, Chicago fire, Mississippi river floods, Hurricane Andrew), Katrina has the un-envied status as the costliest disaster in our nation's history. The impact on human populations, infrastructure, emergency response systems and businesses can only be described as catastrophic (see Piotrowski, 2006). The implications for organizations are rather ominous. Undoubtedly, O.D. practitioners and researchers will be relied upon by private and public organizations, governmental administrations, small businesses and large corporations.

In this article I argue that the impact and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on both the physical and social environment of the Gulf coast, particularly New Orleans, fits into the conceptual framework of Chaos Theory. The disruption, upheaval, disorientation, and displacement of the personal, social, organizational, political, and systems fabric and the effort to make all things functionally normal can be rationally and soberly predicted by the tenets of Chaos Theory. If one accepts this premise, the dysfunctional nature of the way that individuals, group cohorts, and organizational systems are adapting to the devastation is part of the normal process, of adaptation and equilibrium in organizational dynamics and structure, on the road to recovery and a sense of normalcy.

To this end, I present a review of select studies from the scholarly literature with a focus on the main features of Chaos Theory and related research in the areas of the psychosocial aspects of disasters, disaster impact on individuals and organizations, crisis management, and public and governmental response in disaster. Since the recovery, reconstruction and rebuilding after Katrina remains an ongoing and controversial process, with a host of governmental reports, contentious analyses, and funding controversies being reported on each week, I decided to allow some time to pass and then examine the progress on recovery/reconstruction in Part 2 of this article in early 2007.

Chaos Theory and Organizations

Chaos theory, also referred to as Complexity science, has recently been applied to issues in management, organizational functioning, and crisis management (Dolan, Garcia, & Auerbach, 2003; Gregersen & Sailer, 1993; Overman, 1996; seeger, 2002; Tetenbaum, 1998).

The fundamental principle of complexity is that systems (e.g., organizations) tend to self-organize, in the long run; that is, organizations have unique patterns of behavior and function, adapt to continuing challenges, and strive to make order out of chaos (Maguire, 1999). Organizations function in a continuous process of convergence and divergence, stability and instability, tradition and innovation that propels them toward chaos (Anderson & Sturis, 1988; Thietart & Forgues, 1995). …

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