Hurricane Katrina: An Examination of Executive Power in Disaster Response

My research examines the effect of Hurricane Katrina on executive power with regards to disaster preparedness and response policy.  Previous research and theory in this field generally concludes that more active federal governance is the rule following large scale events like deadly Hurricanes.  I conclude that during Hurricane Katrina, this shift in power did not occur; the President did not gain additional powers to influence disaster policy.  My findings are divided into four areas of presidential leadership:  FEMA leadership, commander-in-chief duties, legislative reforms affecting the president, and informal presidential powers.

My main findings are that a president does not “need” additional powers to coordinate an effective disaster response because the right tools are already available to him.  He simply needs to use his existing powers more effectively.  For example, critics point to Mike Brown as a poor choice to lead FEMA because he lacked previous experience in disaster policy.  One Congressional report concluded that FEMA had become a “turkey farm” for political appointees.  Presidents must recognize that purely political appointees do not belong in FEMA.  With regards to the military, presidents must communicate effectively with state governors to ensure that federal and national guard troops are cooperating with one another.  During Katrina, two completely separate chains of command were established, one leading to the president and one to the governor.  Federal and state troops operating in the same neighborhoods were unable to communicate or conduct combined relief operations effectively.

Finally, I take a look at the president’s informal powers.  I conclude that Katrina occurred during an unpopular period for President Bush, with approval for the Iraq War very low.  Yet, President Bush could have presented his response efforts to Katrina better.  His decision to fly over the wreckage made him look disconnected and disinterested from the struggle on the ground.  I argue in my conclusionthat President Obama learned from many of the mistakes I mention in his handling of Hurricane Sandy.

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