The Unavoidable Politics of Disaster Recovery: Hurricane Katrina Offers Lessons on the Interaction of Technical Matters with Decisions That Distribute Benefits and Burdens

By Krane, Dale | The Public Manager, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Unavoidable Politics of Disaster Recovery: Hurricane Katrina Offers Lessons on the Interaction of Technical Matters with Decisions That Distribute Benefits and Burdens


Krane, Dale, The Public Manager


In the two years following Hurricane Katrina, public bodies, journalists, professional associations, and university scholars have made numerous diagnoses of what went wrong before the storm made landfall and of the rescue and relief operations in its aftermath. Many of these critiques examine the shortcomings of government agencies and offices at all levels and arrive at a strikingly similar set of problems. The deficiencies include command and control, communication, coordination, equipment, infrastructure design, individual and organizational initiative, leadership, management, mission clarity, planning, shelter, supplies, transportation, and training. A second, separate set of critiques, while lamenting the administrative and technical failures, focuses on Katrina through the lens of politics. Here the indictments include diverted attention (by the occupation of Iraq), cronyism and patronage, class-based indifference to the poor, interest group maneuvering, local political culture, partisanship, racism, and turf wars. Unfortunately, the recovery phase is also rife with these political pathologies. Efforts to remedy the errors in response to Katrina cannot pretend, as some analyses and recommendations have, that the pursuit of political advantage somehow will be suspended. Understanding how technical matters interact with decisions that distribute benefits and burdens must also be part of learning the lessons Hurricane Katrina is teaching.

More Than Party Politics

Since Katrina struck, the drumbeat of claims that partisan politics drove the decisions and actions of public officials has been nearly continuous, and in some instances, considerable evidence supports these indictments. Some allegations have gained national notoriety-for example, the struggle over federalization of the National Guard engaged in by Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and President Bush, former national Republican chairman and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour's ability to obtain large amounts of federal aid for his state, the patronage appointments of former Republican campaign staff members to positions in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and cuts in federal funds for Mississippi River levees justified as part of an ideological strategy "to starve the beast" of government.

As every public manager knows (from experience), the implementation of public programs such as disaster relief and reconstruction are shaped by politics that transcends bald-faced partisanship. Implementation entails assembling program elements and moving them through multiple bureaucratic-political layers to deliver goods and services to intended citizen beneficiaries. In the complex interactions among individuals and organizations that must be brought together, public managers face a variety of administrative, legal, and technical issues. The effectiveness of existing policies such as the Stafford Act and National Response Plan depends on choices made during the implementation process, where the discretion available to elected and administrative officials creates the potential for success or failure. As officials translate policy into operational terms, their actions may achieve the legislature's intent, exceed expectations, fall short, or in some cases, miss the mark altogether.

Because politics does not stop with the adoption of a policy or program, implementation is not a process characterized solely by rational technical decisions; in stead, the various stakeholders who contended over the design of the policy continue to wrestle over its execution and are joined by other interested parties. The political jockeying during implementation poses several problems for effectiveness, primarily because the pursuit of particular goals may work against the goals as articulated in legislative intent. Although there are many ways to think about how politics beyond the usual partisan actions of Democrats and Republicans shapes implementation, one can identify at least four other types that affect it. …

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