Hurricane Katrina: An Examination of Executive Power in Disaster Response

My paper seeks to understand how executive power changed as a result of Hurricane Katrina.  I first became interested in this topic when I watched news coverage of Hurricane Katrina in high school.  I did not understand how so many people could be stranded in New Orleans without receiving assistance.  Later, I learned about American federalism and how the President has great authority to deploy U.S. military forces abroad to provide disaster relief and keep the peace.  We saw the President use that authority after a massive tsunami hit Indonesia in 2005 and an earthquake in Haiti more recently.  Yet, ironically, when catastrophe strikes within our own borders, the President’s power is severely limited by states’ rights over their own territory.

The popular theory in the field of disaster response policy says that federal power to respond to a disaster grows each time there is a focusing event like a 9/11 terrorist attack or a Hurricane Katrina.  I think my research is unique because Katrina has largely been characterized as a failure at all three levels of government.  By understanding how the President’s power changes in the aftermath of significant domestic catastrophes, my work can advise future administrations about what to expect during a disaster of this magnitude. 

My hypothesis is that executive power in the form of increased regulations and inspections of state and local preparedness has grown.  I will look for evidence of this change primarily in executive orders and new legislation passed by Congress.   I would also love to interview some of the key players within FEMA and the Bush administration as part of my research to see whether the informal powers of the President changed as well.  If anyone has a personal connection to officials fairly high up in FEMA, the white house, or even the Louisiana Governor’s office or New Orleans Mayor’s office, please let me know!
Sean Toal

West Point

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