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Custom Post-Katrina Interagency Coordination Failures essay paper sample

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It is estimated that the current size of the United States government is at least 12 million individuals (Light, 2003).  These numbers include the civil service, uniformed military personnel, postal service jobs, and secondary jobs created by contracts and grants (Light, 2003).  A federal government of this magnitude presents challenges.  The biggest challenge is interagency cooperation (Ulin, 2010).  The 12 million people that comprise the government are spread horizontally across several key organizations such as the Department of Defense, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, intelligence agencies, US Department of Transportation, etc (Thomas et al., n.d.).  Furthermore, within each of these agencies, there is a unique vertical hierarchy, operational procedure, budget, career model, and culture (Thomas et al., n.d.; Ulin, 2010).  These differences act as roadblocks in the way of interagency cooperation (Thomas et al., n.d.; Ulin, 2010).

The concept of interagency cooperation is fundamental to the long-term national security success of the US.  During times of high demand, such as in national disasters, it is paramount that government agencies understand their responsibilities to self and their responsibilities to other agencies (Thomas et al., n.d.).  The notion that a single government entity could manage an entire crisis is fundamentally flawed.  The amount of resources necessary in a first responder national disaster situation are so large that communication between agencies is an essential component of an efficient and effective government response (Thomas et al., n.d.).  In many ways, the level of cooperation necessary can be explained by human physiology.  Consider the amount of neural communication that is required to move a large box.  The fingers need to work with the hand, which works with the arm, the body, and so on.  In addition, the right arm needs to understand the left arm and together move towards and hold the box in a coordinated way.  If the messages from the brain are not being sent or received properly, such as in nerve trauma synonymous with a communication failure, the process is weakened.  In this same manner, government agencies need to build communication to enhance interagency cooperation. 

Hurricane Katrina evidences the deficiency in interagency cooperation and collaboration.  On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina encountered the southern United States from the Gulf of Mexico (NOAA, 2007).  The storm was downgraded to a category three hurricane by the time it made landfall (NOAA, 2007).  Despite the downgrade, many cities in Louisiana were overwhelmed.  Their aged infrastructure did not have the capacity to handle the high level of water management necessary (NOAA, 2007).  Levees broke, flooding was rampant, and the city drowned (Online Journalism, 2005).  The picture below in the days after Hurricane Katrina evidences the situation.  In many ways the image is characteristic of the devastation that is usually found in the developing world.

In the days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the US government response was massive (Online Journalism, 2005).  The main goal of the federal government was to provide disaster relief to affected regions in the Gulf.  This entailed the delivery of food and water, search and rescue, medical triage and care, stability, and security (Online Journalism, 2005). 

Looking back on the situation shows several failures on the interagency level.  It is important to study the post-Katrina events and understand the interagency failures in order to learn from our mistakes.  The post-Katrina interagency response was poor and can be improved in a number of different ways.

Literature Review

In the years since Hurricane Katrina, there have been a variety of authors and published reports on various factors in the government's response.  In this section, we will review several of those published reports.

The Events

In the summer of 2002, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) presented his team with a directive to study various catastrophic event scenarios within the US (Online Journalism, 2005).  One of those catastrophic scenarios was a category 5 hurricane striking New Orleans (Online Journalism, 2005).  In 2004, when his team presented their report, it was clear that New Orleans' proximity to the Gulf of Mexico and technical elevation below sea level raised significant concerns of flooding (NOLA, 2002).  The first section of the five-part report had specific mention of the levees as a weak point in the system (NOLA, 2002).  In order to prepare his team and staff for operational readiness, FEMA played out a test scenario with Hurricane Pam in 2004.  When Katrina, a category 3 hurricane, passed over New Orleans, nobody expected the damage to be severe because every report and drill conducted was for a category 5 hurricane (CNN Politics, 2006).  The water management system was overloaded and the levees failed, flooding the city.  The actual damage and necessary federal and state resources were more than estimated, which left federal agencies scrambling.  The situation was further complicated by the fact that FEMA's director changed between the planning drills and Katrina (Online Journalism, 2005).

First Responders

First responders are the individuals, teams, and agencies that are on scene in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.  They can be state resources such as police, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel (Thomas et al., n.d.).  They can also be federal resources such as the National Guard and FEMA (Thomas et al., n.d.).  Generally speaking, first responders have limited resources to deal with a large problem (Thomas et al., n.d.).  In the post-Katrina aftermath, FEMA teams were given precise instructions not to get involved unless asked directly by state or local authorities (Online Journalism, 2005).  State and local authorities, however, were depending on the federal government.  This conflict in coordination hindered the ability of FEMA to manage the situation, which allowed the disaster to escalate (Online Journalism, 2005). 

Importance of Interagency Collaboration

Interagency cooperation and collaboration are key components of a disaster intervention.  If the disaster response is to be efficient, then it is paramount that different first responders be able to communicate with each other effectively (Thomas et al., n.d.).  However, as the system currently stands, it is an amalgam of patchwork (Ulin, 2010).  Whenever a leak or issue arises, congress and the various federal agencies patch it.  This has led to a tangled web of red tape that is difficult to understand and difficult to manage (Ulin, 2010).  When dealing with a disaster, regulation needs to be clear.  Managers cannot waste time finding the correct hoops, lining them up, and then jumping through them.  This is ineffective, burdensome, and inefficient. 

Multiple authors agree that the only way to fix the system is to completely overhaul it (Ulin, 2010; Thomas et al., n.d.; Dahl, 2007).  A presidential executive order does not have sufficient power to overhaul such a massive amount of regulation across several different agencies (Ulin, 2010; Thomas et al., n.d.; Dahl, 2007).  Therefore, the responsibility falls upon congress (Ulin, 2010; Thomas et al., n.d.; Dahl, 2007).  Although this is a very daunting task, Congress is the only entity that can wipe out the old system and implement a new disaster collaboration protocol (Ulin, 2010; Thomas et al., n.d.; Dahl, 2007).  The authors provide several suggestions for the design of the new program (Ulin, 2010; Thomas et al., n.d.; Dahl, 2007).  First, it should rely on all available technology, such as a unified computer code, to improve interagency electronic communication (Ulin, 2010; Thomas et al., n.d.; Dahl, 2007).  Agencies should not only know what is going on but they should also be able to participate and provide information.  Second, it should also call for the implementation of an incident manager; somebody who has direct authority over the situation at hand and a direct line of communication to every government agency needed in the disaster management (Ulin, 2010; Thomas et al., n.d.; Dahl, 2007).  In other words, the new system should have a ready-to-go model that can be rapidly initiated.

Conflicts and Frustrations

First, in the post-Katrina aftermath, interagency collaboration was very formal.  This led to inherent conflicts, frustration, and poor response times.  For instance, consider once more the FEMA directive not to mobilize unless specifically requested by approved local and state communication channels.  It took 48 hours for FEMA to get its resources on the ground in New Orleans (Hurricane Katrina Relief, n.d.).  During this time, there were 9,000 evacuees in the Superdome without running water, electricity, or food (Hurricane Katrina Relief, n.d.).  Furthermore, the Red Cross was not allowed to enter the city of New Orleans, thus stranding the evacuees (Rodgers, 2005).  The Red Cross has become an expert manager of evacuees; they handle situations such as the Katrina evacuation on a regular basis around the world (American Red Cross, 2010).  The Red Cross attempted everyday to gain access to New Orleans but the National Guard and FEMA would not allow access (Rodgers, 2005).  As a consequence, conditions in the Superdome continued to deteriorate to the point that an evacuation of the Superdome was also required.

Second, Hurricane Katrina was the first big event after the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  The intent of the DHS was to act as the unifying body within the US.  The disaster response was far from unified and collaboration was minimal.  In addition, department heads were in conflict.  Prior to the establishment of the DHS, FEMA directors made the decision to deploy resources after being authorized to take action.  In the post-DHS era, the FEMA director had to consult with the DHS director prior to distributing resources such as personnel.  Again, this slowed down the response.

Third, the one person in the country with the ability to command every aspect of the post-Katrina response was busy with other obligations (CNN Politics, 2006).  The day after Katrina, the Commander and Chief of the United States, President Bush, gave a speech on prescription drugs in Rancho Cucamonga, California and attended a commemoration in Coronado, California (CNN Politics, 2006).  It took President Bush five days before he addressed the issue directly by visiting New Orleans (Online Journalism, 2005).  Social evidence and a post-Katrina congressional panel all suggested that President Bush was not fully involved and that the FEMA director was clueless (CNN Politics, 2006).  However, the DHS secretary disagreed with the panel and claimed that President bush was fully involved (CNN Politics, 2006). Ultimately, the line fell with the congressional panel on one side and the President of the US and DHS secretary on the other side (CNN Politics, 2006).  At this point, the FEMA director had already been forced to resign (CNN Politics, 2006).

Where Things Stand Today

In the past six years, the federal government has managed to gain control of the situation.  The Department of Homeland Security has led the way towards restoring New Orleans to its pre-Katrina state (Homeland Security, 2008).  Specifically, the DHS has mobilized Housing and Urban Development, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the US Department of Transportation, the US Department of Energy, and the US Department of Commerce (Homeland Security, 2008).  The focus of these organizations is to aid in the cleanup and to rebuild infrastructure (Homeland Security, 2008).  Over 15 million people have been affected, 400,000 jobs were lost, and the cost is in the billions (Homeland Security, 2008; Hurricane Katrina Relief, n.d.). 

Although the DHS has made progress, it has taken a full year to mobilize these departments and get them involved.  There is no doubt that the interagency collaboration is bureaucratic and slow moving.


The post-Katrina federal response failed for multiple reasons.  First, the interagency planning before the disaster was poor.  Second, the immediate federal response to the event was slow.  Third, there was no clear line of authority during the event.  Based upon this information, there are several ways that the government can increase its preparedness for future disasters.

Why the Federal Response Failed

The interagency planning before the disaster was very poor.  First, the initial FEMA director had the knowledge and experience to understand that New Orleans was a ticking time bomb.  However, he was not with the agency when disaster actually happened.  This raises very important implications for the current method by which power is transferred within government organizations.  Either the selection process is poor or the flow of information between outgoing and incoming directors is flawed.  Second, the government bubble limits the flow of information into an organization.  In my opinion, this was the case with FEMA's disaster plan.  A five-part study was released that included a special focus on levees as a system breaking point.  The levee issue was minimized, disregarded, and not followed up on.  A thorough plan should have involved a consultation with engineers to determine if their understanding was accurate.  This miscalculation on the part of FEMA propagated a false sense of security.  Third, there was not an established communication system between agencies.  Other than phone calls and in-person meetings, communication channels did not exist.  This is a very archaic model of operational management.  However, this is not surprising because the government in general is slow to evolve. 

The poor initial preparedness became a larger issue due to the federal government's slow response time.  After September 11, 2001, the Department of Homeland Security was created.  It existed for less than 5 years before Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans.  In terms of government, DHS was a baby.  It had not been tested and it was not ready.  This is very evident in their handling of the situation.  FEMA could not get involved because it was waiting for an official request from state and local communication channels, the Red Cross was banging on the door but nobody would let them in, and the President of the United States was in California.  Today, now that the DHS is grown up, it is still doubtful whether DHS is ready to manage a domestic disaster.  Government by nature is lethargic.  Disasters require strategic intervention.  The two just do not go hand in hand.  Lastly, the culture of government impeded the cooperation of agencies.  Older organizations such as FEMA are accustomed to making their own decisions with little oversight.  Directors around the country poorly received the notion of the DHS overseeing their operations; the directors of federal agencies viewed the establishment of DHS as a demotion and loss of power.  When the time came to take action, the already sour faced directors then had to figure out how to actually cooperate for the first time.  It's not surprising that it took days before help showed up.

The federal government's response in the post-Katrina aftermath was ridiculous.  People were pointing fingers at each other, every department head had their own thoughts on the matter, and it seemed as though the President of the United States was either too busy or was not getting the right information.  During September 11, 2001, the government's nonexistent collaborative plan effectively prevented the President from receiving information.  This is an obvious problem, and therefore communications systems for the President were upgraded.  After Katrina, the President had the infrastructure to be kept in the know-how.  The only plausible explanation is that each agency director was simply keeping their information to themselves.  By the time the President took action, the government was trying to play catch up.

How to Increase Preparedness for the Future

As discussed above, there are doubts whether the government as a whole will ever be able to stand up to the job of dealing with a disaster in a timely, effective, and efficient way.  Whenever the government is mobilized, the cost is at a minimum several millions of dollars.  The only hope of increasing the government's operational readiness is to completely redesign the disaster response system.  The problem is that only Congress can do this.  The concept of the government fixing itself is absurd.  The plan might start out with good intentions but by the time it is passed, it will likely be grossly over budget and very different than how it started.  Nonetheless, Congress needs to try.

The government in the United States is designed with three branches that function in a form of checks and balances.  The founding fathers made one exception to this setup: war. During times of war, the President of the United States is given full reigns over the entire government to increase the speed and efficiency of the decision making process.  There is a clear chain of command.  The US's disaster response protocols need to mirror this model.  Specifically, incident commanders need to be trained on how to manage disasters.  They also need to be trained on the resources available from each agency.  In times of disaster, the incident commander can be called upon to manage the situation. He or she would report directly to the President of the United States and he or she would be held directly responsible for the implementation and management of disaster relief.  Now, it is important to state that this is not advocating the creation of a new government entity or the hiring of independent personnel.  The incident commander could be the director of FEMA or the director of DHS.  Regardless of who it is, there needs to be a clear chain of command regarding disasters.  This clear chain of command over all of the federal government's disaster resources will inherently improve interagency collaboration and the government's ability to rapidly respond and adapt to the unique disaster.

Lastly, as we discussed above, the government is behind the curve when it comes to the implementation of technology.  All of the government agencies need to implement information sharing computer systems that allows cross communication and cross awareness.  This type of system will replace the interagency liaisons that currently pass information back and forth.  Here, again, the incident manager can have a collaborative view of the disaster operations from an on-site central command center, thereby enhancing the decision making process.


Hurricane Katrina is one of the most recent homeland disasters. It is important to analyze the post-hurricane events in order to draw conclusions and find ways to make improvements to the system. A review of the literature has revealed very important details regarding the disorganization between every branch that participated in the disaster response.  The analysis has shown that the disorganization and conflicts are a consequence of the nature of government.  The system is a patchwork of policies that are not comprehensive.  Further analysis based upon the literature has also shown that the only way to fix the system is to overhaul the entire response process.  This requires the government to fix itself, which is a problem in itself.  If the government manages to make progress, it should establish the role of incident manager.  This person should be well trained and have complete control over government resources to allow a rapid and effective intervention.

Interagency Cooperation and NSPD

The fact that our country has been faced by several catastrophes indicates that there has been some failure on the part of our interagency in our government. The various agencies in the government have failed to coordinate in the prediction of the likelihood of a disaster and thus making the disaster strike and with a lot of effects. The agencies of the government are supposed to coordinate and act as one government with the information from one agency being used by another agency to prevent the occurrence of disasters in our country. It has been said that some agencies of security knew about the world trade centre bombing. It was the failure of the government agencies to act on the intelligence information and thus prevent the occurrence of that attack. In almost every disaster which strikes our country, there is always an indication that such a disaster may happen. However, the government fails to use this information wisely which leads to the disaster manifesting itself (Rodgers, 2005).

Some of the reasons why the different agencies fail to cooperate are because of the lack of structure in the government connecting the agencies. In the United Sates, agencies report vertically and no horizontal reporting. The agencies are not mandated by the law to give important information to other agencies of the government. This makes the people who are low in the ladder not being able to report anything g which may lead to a problem to the other people in another department who may help in the solving of the problem. There are reports that the some people had predicted that the Katrina disaster would happen. However, the various agencies failed to coordinate effectively and thus making the people exposed to the disaster. If the agencies cooperated, there would be less destruction (NOAA.,  2007). Even if the disaster struck, the people would not face a lot of problems as the government would be prepared for the disaster in advance as it had got the information earlier.

It is not only in the Katrina disaster that there were incidences of interagency coordination failures but also in other attacks which have faced the United States. In the attacks of the United States embassies in Eastern Africa, the various agencies failed to coordinate and prevent the attack. Some of the embassy officials had the information that some terrorists were about to strike. However, the security agencies denied the allegations and thus making the terrorists have an easy time in the attack. If precaution was taken in advance, there would not have been such attack. The various government agencies sometimes act like they are working for different governments forgetting that they are employed to serve the same governments and achieve a common objective (CNN Politics, 2006).

The presidential directive is usually used in the times of disasters. When there is an emergency, the president may decide to declare a state of emergency in which the president uses power to execute continuity procedures of the federal government (Thomas, et al, 2010). During the times as Katrina, the president has the power to order some actions be done by the different agencies of the government in an effort to stop the impact of the catastrophe. Failure of the president to act quickly is sometimes responsible for the huge destructions which are reported when such catastrophes strike. The president should have declared a state of emergency and all the agencies of the government divert all their resources to the area with the catastrophe. All the agencies of the government should thus ensure that they take the full responsibility over the disaster and try to minimize its effects (Dahl, 2007).

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