Academic journal article Homeland Security Affairs

Hurricane Katrina as a Predictable Surprise

Academic journal article Homeland Security Affairs

Hurricane Katrina as a Predictable Surprise

Article excerpt


How can a surprise be predictable? Paradoxically, many people think low-probability events are just that: low probability; not impossible but very unlikely. People find it difficult to sustain a high level of preparedness for events that are unlikely to happen on any given day, especially if the preparation requires spending scarce time and resources. As Max H. Bazerman and Michael D. Watkins observe in their recent book, Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You Should Have Seen Coming, And How To Prevent Them, 'We don't want to invest in preventing a problem that we have not experienced and cannot imagine with great specificity.' 1

We all share a cognitive trait that inclines each of us, as individuals, to take the risk not to invest sufficient time and resources in the present to prevent a large, but low-probability, loss in the future, and choose instead to take smaller, certain losses in the present by investing less in preventative efforts. As a result, spending on prevention is too often minimized until the threats are more tangible, until people can imagine their results. At that point, it is often too late to avoid a large loss.

In an effort to understand these dynamics in the perception of risk, researchers in risk perception and risk communication explicitly address the interplay of rationality and emotion in peoples' decisions about risk. Traditionally, the study of risk assumed that emotion (the affect) limits the degree of rationality in a decision-making process. It was assumed that emotion predisposes us to make one decision rather than another based on our perceptions of good or bad consequences. However, there is another side to the point.

Researchers in risk communication sometimes refer to the phenomena as an affective heuristic that can either limit rational decision-making, or enhance it. 2 By affect, we mean letting emotions about what is good or bad drive us in assessing the risk of doing something one particular way rather than another way. Heuristic means using those emotions as a rule of thumb for guiding the choices we make rather than having those emotions drive our choices. Therefore, following a hunch or gut instinct based on experience or professional judgment, though sometimes posing difficulty for planning and coordination can in principle enhance rational decision-making rather than limit it. The key question is how organizations can use the affective heuristic to enhance rational decision-making, and how it sometimes works against rational decisions.

We have all heard the Monday morning quarterbacking retort often made by people in charge when other people criticize decisions that went wrong. In fact, some of the official responses to efforts to understand how government at all levels prepared for, and responded to, Hurricane Katrina seem to echo the retort that criticisms are just Monday morning quarterbacking. 3 Yet reluctance to assess decisions can result in a failure to learn from poorly thought out choices, where emotion limited rather than enhanced the rationality of the chosen course of action. Bazerman and Watkins believe it is possible to develop criteria for deciding whether a surprise was predictable, and envisioned, but not acted on preventatively.

The analysis here asks whether the definition of a 'predictable surprise' is applicable to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in New Orleans. It is not obvious that the event meets the criteria for the characterization, though at first glance most people probably assume it does. Bazerman and Watkins define a predictable surprise in the following way:

Unlike an unpredictable surprise, a predictable surprise arises when leaders unquestionably had all the data and insight they needed to recognize the potential for, even the inevitability of, a crisis, but failed to respond with effective preventative action. 4

Our key focus is whether the impact of Katrina on the New Orleans levee system was predictable, along with an associated concern about whether the federal preparedness of the levee protection system by the U. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.