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  • Trait d'Union
  • Securitization of Disaster Response in the United States: The Case of Hurricane Katrina (2005)

Malka Older


Securitization of Disaster Response in the United States: The Case of Hurricane Katrina (2005)


The story of Hurricane Katrina is one of security overtaking and overriding disaster management from preparedness through response. After September 11th of 2001 fear of terrorism leached funding from preparedness for natural disasters, while the deployment of much of the Louisiana National Guard overseas reduced local response capacity. Armed guards were deployed in shelters and at distributions, even in Mississippi, harder hit by the storm than New Orleans although unaffected by the secondary disaster of the levees. This pattern of actions, often counterproductive, reveals the symbolic role of security in the country, particularly in times of crisis. Using interviews conducted with emergency managers along the GulfCoast, this article explores the effort to shift the discourse from safety to security.A shift that represents a reframing of the crisis into one that falls more clearly within the mandate of the central government, as well as a means of imposing control over uncontrollable and unpredictable natural disasters.

Keywords: Security; Natural Disasters; Emergency Management; Federalism.


L'histoire de l'ouragan Katrina est un exemple qui montre comment thème de la sécurité peut entrer en conflit avec la gestion des catastrophes. Après le 11 Septembre 2001, la crainte d’attaques terroristes a entrainé la réduction du budget alloué à la gestion des catastrophes naturelles tandis que le déploiement d'une grande partie de la Garde Nationale de la Louisiane à l'étranger a réduit la capacité d'intervention locale. Même dans le Mississippi, où l’ouragan a été plus violent qu’à la Nouvelle Orléans sans toutefois effecter les digues, des gardes armés ont été déployés au niveau des abris et des points de distribution. Ces actions, souvent contre-productives, révèlent le rôle symbolique de la sécurité aux Etats-Unis, en particulier en temps de crise. En s’appuyant sur des entretiens réalisés avec des acteurs-clés de la gestion de la crise dans la zone sinistrée de la Gulf Coast, cet article examine l'effort de la part des autorités de déplacer le discours autour de la géstion de la catastrophe vers la sécurité. Au final, ce déplacement, a entrainé une réfinition de la responsabilité et un repositionnement de l’action du gouvernement central en terme de gestion des crises naturelles.

Mots clés : Sécurité ; Catastrophes Naturelles ; Gestion des urgences ; Fédéralisme.


Malka Older

Centre de Sociologie des Organisations, Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris

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Securitization of Disaster Response in the United States: The Case of Hurricane Katrina (2005)




Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of the United States in late August, 2005, killing at least 1577 and destroying 300 000 homes (United States Senate, 2006: 37). Katrina’s impacts and the government response highlighted elements of policy and society, sharpening questions about inequality, race, and federalism. Cutting across these axes, the story of Katrina demonstrates the pervasiveness of securitization in the United States. Readiness was diluted because of the deployment of National Guard members overseas and a federal focus on preparing for terrorists attacks rather than natural catastrophes. Armed guards were deployed at shelters and distributions. Rumors about lawlessness in New Orleans hampered response and were later shown to be untrue. Why was there such an emphasis on protection from violence during a “natural” disaster? When the main concern should have been safety (protection from harm), how did the focus shift to security (safety against criminal activity)?

To begin to answer these questions we will first offer a brief summary of the structure of emergency management in the United States, and a description of the circumstances of that structure at the time Katrina hit, with particular attention to the security ramifications in preparedness. The article will then examine existing literature, with a focus on the theory of elite panic. We will then look at how securitization became, in many circumstances, an added danger for those affected by the disaster(1). Finally, the article interrogates the ways in which the federal government’s roles in national security and crisis management are conflated. We posit that the militarization of the disaster response, while in part attributable to elite panic, also included an element of reframing: shifting the problem from the chaotic, poorly understood area of natural disaster response, to that of security which, if no less chaotic, is amenable to the project of government and its need for at least a perception of control.

This article draws on more than thirty-six semi-structured interviews with emergency managers, municipal employees, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) staff, volunteers, and local academics. The interviews, which took place primarily during fieldwork for PhD dissertation research in 2013 and 2014, were semi-structured, recorded, and transcribed. Security was a consistent theme throughout the interviews, particularly with emergency managers or anyone directly involved with emergency operations.

While many studies of Katrina are limited to New Orleans, or focus primarily on that city with little data from beyond it (for example: Birkland and Waterman, 2008; Col, 2007; Derthick, 2007; Maestas et al., 2008; Moynihan, 2009; Olejarski and Garnett, 2010), the data used for this article includes interviews with local emergency managers and other government officials from other affected areas, most importantly St. Tammany Parish(2) in Louisiana, and Hancock, Harrison, and Pearl River Counties in Mississippi.


I. Security and Disaster Response Outside the US

The American emphasis on security during disaster responses is unusual, if not unique. While most developed countries do utilize their militaries in response – and, indeed, most, without the constraints of the Posse Comitatus Act, use them to a greater extent – the role is explicitly humanitarian. For example, after the earthquake and tsunami in 2011, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces were highly engaged in the response, but not in a security capacity. They cleared roads, ran soup kitchens, conducted needs assessments in shelters, set up temporary bathing facilities, and even ran a laundry truck; they did not guard anything. This is similar to the US military’s role in overseas disasters (including Japan’s): they provide equipment and manpower, but not security.

In international humanitarian response, a field of work primarily practiced by non-governmental actors and international organizations (like the United Nations) which has become standardized and professionalized over the past two decades (and in which the author, as noted above, has participated), security is normally related to two concerns: the security of responders (or humanitarians) and protection. The problematic of responder security is largely focused on threats specific to the international community (such as kidnapping for ransom, or in conflict situations in which there is overt antagonism towards internationals), although it is sometimes related to more generalized crime as well. Writing about humanitarian security during the Haiti response, Dandoy suggests that the threats in Haiti were seriously overestimated, and that “The systematic application of restrictive security standards reflects therefore the security ideology that reigns within the humanitarian community rather than a contextual analysis of the security situation”(3) (Dandoy, 2013: 6). To protect responders, organizations may employ guards (even, although this is a matter of some controversy in the humanitarian community, armed guards), use convoys, reinforce living quarters and impose no-go zones. However, all of these measures are focused on the responders. They would not include guards at shelters and only at distributions if there was reason to think the coordinators of the distribution might be in danger.

Protection, on the other hand, is focused on those affected by crisis or disaster. Protection has been defined as “All activities aimed at obtaining full respect for the rights of the individual, in accordance with the letter and the spirit of the relevant bodies of law (i.e. international human rights law, international humanitarian law and refugee law)”(4). According to the International Committee of the Red Cross “Protection aims to ensure that authorities and other actors respect their obligations and the rights of individuals in order to preserve the safety, physical integrity and dignity of those affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence” (ICRC, 2008: 752). Although the initial focus for this concept was on conflict, it has since been extended to include the potential violations of rights that may arise during natural disasters (see Slim and Bonwick 2005). While protection includes the rights of all people, it is traditionally concentrated on the most vulnerable, and rather than direct, force-based deterrence security it tends to inspire participation and integration into humanitarian programming; a typical example might be designing latrines in a camp or shelter with the safety of women and children in mind.


II. Context: Crisis Management and Securitization of Preparedness in the US

            Crisis management in the United States is inter-jurisdictional and multi-agency. The legal basis is the Stafford Act which provides a mandate for the federal government to support localities and states(5), the lead actors in disaster response. In large disasters, when the locals need additional assistance, they request it from states, who can in turn request from the federal government, requiring coordination among the different levels. To effect this coordination, the Stafford Act mandates a Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO) and a State Coordinating Officer (SCO), who work together to manage the response, theoretically insuring input from their respective jurisdictions.

Although the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the primary dedicated agency for disaster response, FEMA is not designed as a first responder, nor does it stockpile all the necessary equipment, technology, personnel, and know-how necessary for a large response. Rather, FEMA’s role is to coordinate resources from other government agencies. This is facilitated by the emergency support functions (ESFs) 15 sectoral categorizations (such as Communications, Firefighting, and Public Health and Medical Services), each assigned to one or more agency. A coordination meeting, therefore, should have representation for at a minimum each of the relevant ESFs(6); moreover, each ESF should have both federal and state representatives. As explained by W. Carwile, an experienced FEMA official and the Federal Coordinating Officer for Mississippi during Katrina, “there’s got to be a state counterpart sitting next to the federal. So if it’s a health issue, there’s somebody from the Department of Health and Human Services from the Feds, and right next to them, there’s somebody from the Department of Health from the state”.

While the Department of Defense (DoD) supports most of the ESFs, and is generally represented at coordination meetings, the participation of the active duty military is limited by the Posse Comitatus Act. Historically rooted in the Civil War and the turbulent post-war Reconstruction period which pitted the federal government against recently reunited states, posse comitatus prevents the use of the federal military to enforce domestic policy, limiting the role of the army (and, through amendments and corollaries, the other branches) on domestic soil. This is balanced by the National Guard, state-level militias that answer to governors, rather than presidents, which often play an active role in disaster response. This seems to have been particularly true in Louisiana during the period before Katrina. J. Smith, the Deputy Director of the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness at the time of Katrina (and a retired colonel in the National Guard) explained:

Now the theory in Louisiana, and you won’t find this written anywhere, but it’s the way it operated for 20 years or 30 years before Katrina, is that this agency was only designed to kind of keep things in a steady state, and whenever a disaster was approaching, the National Guard would mobilize just before the disaster, would come in and would fill a lot of positions in emergency management, and more or less take over the operation of the emergency […] your biggest single tool in your toolbox at the state level is your National Guard.

When Katrina hit, however, “Roughly 40 to 50 percent of Louisiana’s National Guard troops were in Iraq at that time” (Senate, 2006:156, footnote 31). In addition, as New Orleans City Councillor C. Hedge-Morrell noted, “I think that people forget that when the National Guard leaves it takes the equipment with them”. The security resource so commonly applied to disaster response was no longer completely available, because it was being employed for its intended purpose.

The deployment of the National Guard was a result of the attacks of September 11th, and it was far from the only impact of those attacks on disaster preparedness in the United States. After the attacks, a vast reorganization in United States emergency management created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), reduced FEMA from the Cabinet-level status it enjoyed in the nineties, and made it dependent upon DHS for budgets. Preparedness, thought of primarily as intelligence gathering in the context of counterterrorism, was disassociated from response.

Many commentators have already described the shifts in United States emergency management policy after September 11th, 2001, some with more ire than others (see, for example, Birkland and Waterman, 2008; Moynihan, 2009; Schneider, 2008). Birkland and Waterman contend that “The September 11 attacks and the concomitant focus on ‘‘homeland security,’’ [were] to the detriment of preparedness for and response to natural hazards” (Birkland and Waterman, 2008: 699). This was not just a funding issue, although that was a large part of it. Although “federal aid to state and local emergency management functions actually increased considerably after September 11,” this “aid was mostly related to putative terrorist threats, such as chemical and biological warfare” (Birkland and Waterman ,2008: 700), squeezing out funding for natural disaster preparedness. In addition, poor management and budget cuts gutted the agency of experienced staff.

The funding prioritization indicated a shift in approach and perspective. Terrorism was both popular – in the sense that it scared more people more than natural disasters did – and perceived as a new challenge for which the country was unprepared. This emphasis on terrorism permeated the agency, and through it the state and local programs it funded. Tierney and Bevc write that “programs, budgets, the kind of personnel who were put in charge of various initiatives, and DHS rhetoric all signaled a myopic bureaucratic focus on the terrorist threat.” (Tierney and Bevc, 2010: 40)

The focus on security-heavy counterterrorism maybe has led to a situation in which the Department of Homeland Security, having built up a hammer, saw every incident as a nail. Tierney and Bevc (2010) describe the way in which “public officials and the media framed the government response to Katrina as the domestic equivalent of war” (Tierney and Bevc, 2010: 42). Even General Honoré, the military commander eventually put in charge of parts of the response, “described Katrina ‘as an enemy that pulled a ‘classic military maneuver’’ […] Thus, nature itself was recast as an ‘intelligent enemy’” (Tierney and Bevc, 2010: 47). Having prepared to respond to terrorists or conduct armed conflict, the United States reframed completely distinct challenges under those terms

Smith, the retired National Guardsman and Deputy Director at the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security, explained how he saw this shift at the state level:

Being someone from the military I will tell you homeland security is critical, it’s important, it’s not diminishing that role, but emergency management is a different thing than homeland security. So what you had happen is because after 9/11 all the funds were going into the homeland security side of the house, you had people in charge of homeland security that were totally focused on true homeland security. […] At the state level it’s pretty clear that a homeland security mission is like a state police mission and a sheriff’s mission. Well, when you look at emergency management it involves all of the disciplines that you need in emergencies and police are just one piece of the emergency management system. You know you have police, you have fire, you have medical, you have transportation, you have all of your emergency support functions that role into one. So your emergency management director should be coordinating all of those activities. Well, what homeland security did in my estimation is they literally put the law enforcement piece in charge of everything else, and they really didn’t recognize that emergency management is a true function of itself.

Smith’s perspective was in part based on the experience of a state agency that had depended on the National Guard for disaster response and found, during Katrina, that was insufficient:

Prior to Katrina, that set-up and that organizational structure [relying on the National Guard] worked fairly well. But during Katrina it absolutely failed because generally the Guard was used to being able to handle everything on their own, you didn’t have a large organization to help bring in all of these external assets from all over the country, which ultimately we needed to do. […] the emergency management agency needed to be at the state level an independent organization with a direct report to the governor. And it needed to be able to stand on its own, because the National Guard, while critical, was only one of the tools in the toolbox.

Smith’s experience reflects two separate issues that combined to leave Louisiana particularly unprepared to deal with a large disaster. The reliance on the National Guard, an agency that was designed and committed to other purposes, may have been specific to Louisiana. It certainly was not the case in Mississippi, where, according to Robert Latham, Director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, concerted efforts were made before Katrina hit to increase local commitments to dedicated emergency management departments. However, the belief at the national level that developing so-called homeland security provided protection against all other threats was more pervasive, both because it was integrated into the conditional grants that provided most local funding for preparedness, and because of the cultural influence of national “experts.”

Birkland and Waterman contend that the fear of “a catastrophic nuclear attack, a mass casualty act of biological terrorism, or any other catastrophe that entirely disabled a large city or metropolitan area,” shifted “from a theoretical possibility to a very real threat with palpable consequences” in the wake of September 11th (Birkland and Waterman, 2008: 699). This idea, particularly during the national upheaval that followed the attacks on the WorldTradeCenter and the Pentagon, may have made a natural disaster seem like an easy challenge to contend with. After all, natural hazards are hardly a new threat, and much of modern living is designed to make them seem irrelevant: construction, electricity, and climate control (when they work) make most weather into scenery at best, a nuisance at worst, and certainly easier to deal with than terrorists. The National Flood Insurance Program, as homeowners found out to their chagrin after Katrina, had been underwriting risky development for decades. Birkland and Waterman write that “While DHS officials tended to think of disaster management as born on September 11, 2001, so that all decisions and plans are novel, local emergency managers frame it as a 200-year-old idea with well-established practices” (Birkland and Waterman, 2008: 699). It is easy to imagine counterterrorism officials, caught up in the novelty of their work, believing that the “natural” disaster side of the job had been solved. This hubris seems apparent in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, when those outside of the affected areas failed to grasp how devastating the hurricane had been. Such a belief in the mastery over nature also creates an expectation problem. When people think they are living in a time when hurricanes are no longer a real threat, there is almost no way for the government to “win” against a hurricane.

The militarization of the United States during the post-September 11th era, and before, is not a surprise. The high spending on the military, the prevalence of guns, the complicated national relationship to overseas wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, all indicate a society for which security is an outsized concern. Huret, writing about Katrina, sees the response to the hurricane as the logical result of what (some) citizens had voted for, “a contract state characterised by an inclination to privatise public authority and a prioritisation of national security”(7) (Huret, 2010: 26). For Huret, the failures of Katrina are an expression of the same logic at work in American foreign policy: the strategy of “seeing to the security of the space and delegating to local and associative structures the task of supporting the social costs of the disaster [...were] for the first time on view for the population on American soil”(8) (Huret, 2010: 27). This article argues that the securitization is not only a movement towards privatization and greater militarization, but also a reframing of areas, in this case disaster response, where the role of the State is less clear, thereby extending federal reach over such areas.


III. Elite Panic and Elites Panicking: analysis of the context of Hurricane Katrina

            While there the stereotype of public panic in disasters is thoroughly discredited (Tierney 2008, Clarke and Chess 2008), the persistent idea of public panic can lead to less-widespread irrational behavior. Clarke and Chess consider examples in which, despite the evidence against mass hysteria, “elites sometimes fear public panic,” a situation which “Ironically […] can become a self-fulfilling prophecy” (Clarke and Chess, 2008: 999) as efforts to avoid panic, such as hoarding information or mischaracterizing the situation, bring negative effects. In a study of Katrina, Tierney finds support for this, writing that “Particularly in the aftermath of Katrina, there is growing evidence that the threat of elite panic, especially in the face of very large-scale disaster events, is quite real” (Tierney, 2008: 131). If the masses don’t panic, decision-makers may, and this, Tierney argues, has the potential to be far more damaging.

Tierney describes the characteristics of elite panic as “pathological fear of social disorder and of segments of the population that are not part of the elite; practices designed to protect private property and other elite prerogatives; and postevent efforts to identify and punish scapegoats and hastily usher in new ‘reforms’” and traces how these attitudes were “shockingly evident during Katrina, as evidenced by media and public officials’ obsessions with looting and lawlessness, the issuing of shoot-to-kill orders arising primarily out of a concern with property crime, and the rush to act upon rumors that circulated regarding the ‘savage’ behavior of lower-class community residents, immigrants, and people of color” (Tierney, 2008: 131). The pattern became a vicious cycle: fear of disorder led to an emphasis on security that often hampered the emergency response, leading to greater disorder.

Tierney’s analysis is explicitly focused on New Orleans, and indeed examples of elite panic there are well known, including the unsupported claims of widespread violence made by the Mayor and the Police Chief; media warnings that also proved largely unsubstantiated; and the extreme militarization of the later response (see for example United States Senate 2006; Tierney 2008; Huret 2014). Shocking as these episodes are even in a city with high crime rates, it is even more surprising to see the same kind of fear-based securitization in the small towns and cities of southern Mississippi. The hurricane had a more direct impact along the MississippiGulfCoast than on New Orleans, although the extensive damages to the east were overshadowed when the failure of the levees in New Orleans led to greater casualties there. Contemporary accounts demonstrate unfounded fear of disorder hampering response efforts in Mississippi as well, for example: “On Friday, September 2, the Houston Chronicle reported that water distribution was limited to half a cup per refugee per day at the HarrisonCentralElementary School shelter in Gulfport. The Houston paper found ‘a tense crowd’ on hand with ‘officers holding rifles’ when the first loads of potable water arrived for distribution at Milner Stadium in a low-income area of West Gulfport. When told that they could take as much water as they could carry ‘they made a fast but orderly rush toward five large truckloads of ice and water.’” (Smith, 2012: 52-53)

Despite such efforts, “there were reports of people pushing the elderly to the ground and taking their water when relief did arrive in locations along the Gulf Coast” (Petersen, 2014: 43), suggesting that the role of the security forces had less to do with protection of the rights of vulnerable affected people and more to do with protecting the assets involved until delivery. Localities also stationed armed security at shelters used for people who had just lost their homes. In interviews conducted along the coast, every respondent gave a different reason for this.

I think what we saw mostly was, you start housing people and you start keeping them for days on end, these people that may be on some kind of psychotic medication that they’ve lost their medication, we saw that, we saw that real issue, that you had people that really, they were fine as long as they were on the medication but after several days of being off the medication they just really were confrontational, and we had to we had to really work through those issues. (Tim Kellar, Chancery Clerk and County Administrator, Hancock County)

Emergency Management Agency Assistant (EMAA): “You just never know.”

Emergency Management Director (EMD):“No, no, no.”

EMAA: “There’s no problems, and usually with people there there shouldn’t be a problem.”

EMD: “That’s called precaution.”

EMAA: “‘Cause Aunt Sally who went out with Uncle Bob’s – everybody, the county’s so small that you always run into good bad or indifferent.” (Adams and Lacoste)

“You did have vandalism going on and stuff like that, but to keep it at a minimum, that’s why we had the military there. And it was basically a safety issue more than anything, because if there’s no running sewer and water in there, why are you going to allow people to go in there and create more hazards? So I mean it wasn’t really the theft, it was more of safety. And to protect the people’s belongings that were scattered everywhere. (Bruce Wilkerson, Emergency Management Agency, Harrison County)

These statements include elements typical of elite panic: an insistence on order; an emphasis on protection of private property; security measures implemented despite the lack of evidence to support the need for them. They also suggest a certain searching for justification. Security at shelters was, it seems, an unquestioned part of procedure. Although none of the respondents can point to a specific threat, none of them is willing to consider the idea that the security is unnecessary or excessive. Conscious choice or no, it represented the power of the State; informal shelters, many of which sprang up at churches, were of course not under guard.

In at least one case, in St Tammany Parish, Louisiana, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans and on the border with Mississippi, having armed security in the shelters made the situation more dangerous. According to K. Davis, the Parish President at the time:

At every shelter I had law enforcement or military. I had one flare-up in a rural community when the little Pick-a-pack or Timesave or Quickstop opened, and people were pretty stressed so they went down there and got drunk, came back to the shelter, and the military, happened to be a female guard military, and somehow they got obnoxious with her and pushed her. When she turned around with that M-16 on them, inside the shelter. Then I got the call and I drove up there I said okay time out. (Davis)

Several of these examples point to a security threat among those staying in the shelters: the armed guards are not to protect the displaced from outside aggressors, but to control them. Some, though not all, counties prohibited non-residents from using their shelters, and it seems unlikely that very many people entered the disaster zone in order to join one, so the evacuees are the same people who lived in these relatively rural counties before the disaster. The insistence on policing them when they have lost their homes and possessions suggests either that those in charge believe that disasters fundamentally change the way people act – elites panicking over the possibility of public panic – or that pervasive security is necessary in everyday life. Under the latter interpretation, the disaster makes more feasible and visible a securitization that was not triggered by the crisis, but was already pervasive.


IV. Elites as Threat

     Despite this focus on protecting, or policing, people affected by the disaster, the more violent threats to the response were coming from local elites. According T. Kellar in HancockCounty, two days after the hurricane hit:

[…] the FEMA director came to me and said, uh, we’ve had something happen overnight. And I said, really. He said we had a sheriff from a neighboring county that sent his deputies […] to where we had all of our food water and ice staged to make distribution, and he sent deputies over and they commandeered all of the supplies and had them taken to his county where he could choose and make distribution as he saw fit.

Although the HancockCounty source was careful not to say where the sheriff was from, officials in neighbouring HarrisonCounty were not shy about talking about the incident, like this Emergency Management Agency staffer:

We, if we had a semi-truck on the interstate that was going to another jurisdiction, the state troopers would surround that truck, and pull it over and hijack the truck. I’m serious. They would take four MHP state police officers, and they would reroute that resource to our local needs. […] And then we had to pay for it of course. We can’t just steal it. It was fun hijacking the trucks, but we had to pay for it.

Local security – a sheriff and state police officers – was used to undermine national efforts at a coherent response. Just as national security ignores broader costs in favor of supposed safety for those within the country, this tactic narrowed the definition of “in-group” to the county, ignoring the larger picture of needs along the coast. Security at all costs meant disregarding the needs of neighbors. This also threatened a security arms race. S. Simpson, an emergency responder who arrived from Florida as part of a mutual aid compact explained:

That was endemic all the way through. That’s why after a couple of days guardsmen were deployed with the convoys, so they would make it where. […] Okay, so the federal troops we could not use, we used National Guard, for that very reason. The federal troops had weapons, but no ammunition. The guard had ammunition. And there were counties that were hijacking supplies, and that is a reality. That even happened in Florida during some of our season, so it’s nothing new. So you just have to combat that, that’s all. […] you put a stop to that by having stronger forces than they do.

The victims of this practice in the case noted above, HancockCounty, certainly felt that it wasn’t possible to combat the practice in the court of public opinion. The idea that “our local needs” outweighed priorities decided at the state level based on multiple competing local needs was so powerful that T. Kellar talked his FEMA counterpart out of prosecuting the offence:

There was even discussion about federal prosecution, let me tell you the downside of that, and I sat with the gentleman from FEMA and said you know what you’re gonna do? You’re gonna do nothing more than glorify him. You’re gonna have all of his voters over there to say, that’s my man, he’s taking care of us, when in fact, he was shortsighted with what he was doing. And that’s kind of what you do when you get into this situation, if they go in and they basically allege that they came over and commandeered and took it over to their county, and then these people that elect them, are the ones that says, amen. That’s my man. I voted for him and look what he did. He went and fought the federal government and he won. He got what we needed. Sad situation.

The idea of the use of force as a version of competent leadership and governance was so accepted that such reckless behavior – what would be considered essentially warlordism in an international setting – could be looked on as something praiseworthy (as warlordism undoubtedly is by those who benefit from it).

For all the efforts at “security” by the federal government, local elites did not feel secure enough to wait for relief goods to be apportioned to them. In Japan, by contrast, after the 2011 tsunami, local leaders were so certain of rapid assistance that they sent people out in the snow to wait for responders so they could guide them around destroyed roads (Interview, Rikuzentakata, 12 March 2013). Instead, the elites on the coast of Mississippi played on security fears themselves, relying on the threat of violence rather than coordination, communication, or negotiation. The narrative of security as necessary (as well as that of an overreaching federal government) was strong enough that this behavior was deemed justifiable both by those who carried it out and by their constituents.


V. Reframing the Disaster: the role of government

            Questions of security are deeply entwined with the role of the federal government. While arguments over the precise boundaries of the federal government continue to roil American politics, national defence is one responsibility that even the most extreme libertarians agree must fall under the purview of the national level. Keeping citizens safe from external and internal threats continues to be one of the most potent justifications for the nation-state.

The government’s responsibility for disaster response is much less clear. As Steinberg wrote, federal involvement in disaster response is in fact a relatively recent development. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries disaster relief funding might come from inter-city mutual aid or public subscription, and some city leaders would refuse aid if they felt it might hurt the image of their jurisdiction, even if vulnerable inhabitants were still in need. Steinberg notes that receiving disaster funding from the federal government only became “a common strategy after 1934, when Congress authorized the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to begin making disaster loans to rebuild public facilities” (Steinberg, 2000: 67).

The types of federal aid available gradually expanded, and taking advantage of them became more commonplace, through the last century. However, while locals remained, legally, the primary actors in disaster response, even as recently as Katrina many people, both in government and private citizens believed that the federal government, and particularly FEMA, was in charge. Birkland and Waterman write that “A widespread misconception among citizens, journalists, and some members of Congress is that the federal government, under the Stafford Act, is primarily responsible for disaster relief and recovery services” (Birkland and Waterman, 2008: 697). Their study shows that media surveys and media reports blame the federal government for failures in areas that were not and have never been their responsibility, like evacuation. Schneider, also looking at Katrina, finds that while the public has clear understanding about the general roles of different levels of government, government officials themselves do not:

[…] officials across all levels of government misunderstood key elements of their responsibilities during the response to Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. At the local level, parish and city officials expected the national government to step in and take charge of the situation […] The most serious misunderstandings occurred at the federal level. Part of the problem was due to the new elements of the national response plan, adopted in 2004. Katrina was the first declared incident of national significance. […] Therefore, officials were operating in uncharted territory during Katrina; they simply did not know what they were supposed to do. This uncertainty about responsibilities permeated the entire system. (Schneider, 2008: 725).

Further, Schneider finds that while the public has clear opinions about how the response was managed – not well – they do not have a clear vision for how it should be managed. Managing disasters poses conundrums: individual rights (for example, to decide where to live) versus collective risk (tax-payer funded responses); the financial burden of preparing for high-impact, low-frequency hazards; and local contextual knowledge versus experience and expertise. Citizens may expect the federal government to swoop in and save them, but they don’t necessarily want it to set limits on their freedoms to make doing so easier or to charge them for the possibility via taxes.

The confusion is understandable. Government involvement in disasters has changed rapidly over the past century, and expectations have changed even more rapidly (Schneider, 2008). Particularly for the federal government, the role remains vague and politically, even ideologically, contested. Defending his agency’s actions and omissions in congressional hearings, the Director of FEMA at the time of Katrina, Michael Brown(9), repeatedly expressed reservations about the type of help that the federal government should provide: “it is not the role of the federal government to supply five gallons of gas for every individual to put in a car to go somewhere. I personally believe that is a horrible path to go down” (quoted in U.S. House, 2006: 106); “I don't think that's a federal government responsibility to provide ice to keep my hamburger meat in my freezer or refrigerator fresh” (quoted in Shane and Lipton, 2005). Brown’s assertions represent a view of limited government, and his way of expressing them suggests that he sees certain specific limits as clear, even self-evident. These limits are far from agreed upon, however; both the House report and the newspaper article which cite those quotes include counter-opinions from other government officials.

If Brown saw some limits on what the federal government should or should not pay for, there were also moments in the response when he and his colleagues called for greater federal involvement. In his testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Louisiana Federal Coordinating Officer William Lokey recalled on August 31st, two days after landfall, “‘going to Michael Brown and saying, this is beyond me, this is beyond FEMA, this is beyond the state. We need to, and I used the term, we need to federalize this’” (Senate, 2006: 514). Asked what he meant by the term, Lokey said “I don’t exactly know what I meant. What I meant was that – what I was talking about was turning this over to somebody that can manage something this size […] So that was just a term I used” (Senate, 2006: 514). Brown also “continued to advocate to the White House that the response be ‘federalized’” (Senate, 2006: 513). Lokey and Brown already worked for the federal government, suggesting that the urge to “federalize” was motivated by a sense of being overwhelmed. Part of the meaning may have been that the federal government should take over the response in a way not permitted by the Stafford Act, in which their role is clearly set out as supporting the local authorities. However, neither Lokey nor Brown was asking for more authority; rather, they were asking for someone else to take over and fix what was already a mess of a response.

However, the context also suggests Lokey and Brown were talking about something more specific: military assistance. Lokey completed his request to Brown saying “We need to, and I used the term, we need to federalize this or get a massive military invasion in here to get some help” (514). Despite his phrasing, these seem to represent more equivalent options to him than different paths. Brown is even more explicit:

Brown stated that he recommended the entire response be “federalized,” meaning that the President invoke the Insurrection Act(10) and place the National Guard under the control of the active-duty forces:

‘Because at that time, we’re looking at these stories of shootings and looting and everything else going on, and I’m fearful that’s spiralling out of control, and I want active-duty troops that are ready, willing and able to kill in that area, because we can’t do search and rescue with that kind of stuff going on.’ (Senate, 2006: 515)

As far as it is possible to clarify, most of the stories Brown refers to are false or greatly exaggerated, but it is even more telling that “to federalize” seems to have become a euphemism for “to militarize.” The federal government’s might and power has become associated with the might and power of the military. The purpose of the State, it seems, is to stabilize and protect; if it can do neither, it should at least pretend to.

The confusion over the appropriate level of engagement by the federal government is not limited to individuals. The three federal reports on Katrina, from the House, Senate, and White House, each had a different interpretation of the failure and each had a different prescription for moving forward, ranging from increased federal involvement to less. The House report showed an inclination towards smaller government and greater privatization of responses, stating on its first page “Unfortunately, no government does these things well, especially big governments” (House, 2006: 1). The White House report, in contrast, argues for “the need for a flexible Federal response and a larger Federal role in catastrophic contingency planning” (White House, 2006: 11) and suggests that “A useful model for our approach to homeland security is the Nation’s approach to national security” (White House, 2006: 66). The report promotes a larger role for the federal government, in which “Virtually all elements of the Federal government must be operational – to respond to catastrophic events with unified effort” and recommends “Strengthening the response capabilities – management and field resources – of other Federal departments and agencies” (White House, 2006: 69). The Senate report focuses more on reorganization and refocusing of the departments and agencies involved, including a strengthening of the regional (multi-state, sub-national) level of FEMA; unsurprisingly, as the Senate committee involved held oversight over homeland security, it is these recommendations that were most influential in the eventual legal changes. However, the range of interpretations of the disaster among different governmental branches shows that there is no consensus on the federal role in dealing with disasters.

Reframing disasters as a security issue sidesteps that debate while in practice extending federal control. For example, one of the frequent tropes brought up during the coverage of Katrina is the question of looting. The racial element of the “looting” characterization as opposed to scavenging for food became a question for the media, and as noted above, police were deployed to prevent looting even in small cities. Making the conversation about looting – whether the label is justified, whether its application is racist, whether it is possible or advisable to prevent – obscures the failure of the State to adequately provide food, shelter, and other assistance to the affected people. Pointing the supposed lawlessness of citizens gives the government an opportunity to be judged on its ability to manage that lawlessness – a field in which it is well-practiced, and which is premised on the opposite of chaos: control.



After the impact of Hurricane Katrina and the breaching of the New Orleans levees overwhelmed preparedness, the United States government response put a heavy emphasis on security, often to the detriment of safety. This focus on security not only distracted from the response to the disaster; it often made it worse: delaying search and rescue, limiting the options for shipment and distribution of relief goods; tying up human resources that could have been used in other ways. While this was perhaps most noticeable at the federal level, local governments also assigned armed guards to shelters and shopping areas and, as we have seen, took matters into their own (armed) hands, hijacking relief goods.

While this shift both reflects the post-9/11 orientation of U.S. disaster management policy and upholds the elite panic theory posited by Tierney (2006) and expanded by Clarke and Chess (2008), it also demonstrates a discomfort around the role of the government in disaster response. The emphasis on security is the result of a reframing from a poorly defined arena with notable gaps between legitimacy, expectations, and ability, to a clearly mandated field of action. The ease with which this was accomplished and justified, meanwhile, shows an acceptance of the use of security-based approaches as a means of managing, if not resolving, crisis. At the same time, the existence of the Posse Comitatus Act makes it difficult to directly use active service military in the service of disaster response, underscoring the complex relationship between security and non-military emergencies.

There is a need for further research on the role of governments in general, and the United States in particular, in disaster response. The management of such so-called “natural” emergencies, which involve underlying social and often technical factors but which are triggered by natural hazards, differ in the public perception from responses to terrorism or military attacks. However, these public perceptions are shifting as ideas change about the responsibility that governments hold for the people in their territory. What does a government owe its citizens during a crisis that does not involve an attack on the nation?

Conversely, if security is being leveraged as a reflexive and visible means of responding to crisis, even when it is not relevant, what are the consequences for the State and its constituents? How does this play out across lines of inequality and marginalized populations? If the purpose of security is to reframe the challenge into something that fits more readily into perceptions of government mandates and strengths, what are the difficulties that are being obscured?




(1) This article uses the UNISDR definition of disaster, “a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society involving widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses and impacts, which exceeds the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources”, along with its commentary, “disasters are often described as a result of the combination of: the exposure to a hazard; the conditions of vulnerability that are present; and insufficient capacity or measures to reduce or cope with the potential negative consequences.” Available on:

(2) Parishes in Louisiana are the equivalent of counties in most of the rest of the United States.

(3)« L’application systématique de normes contraignantes reflète donc l’idéologie sécuritaire qui règne au sein de la communauté humanitaire plutôt qu’une analyse contextualisée de la situation sécuritaire. »


(5) For the purposes of this article, « state » (without capitalization) is used in the sense of meso-level jurisdictions of the united States, such as Mississippi or Louisiana. When it is capitalized, it refers to the concept of the political entity combining all the public powers of the nation.

(6) For example, Long-Term Community Recovery might not be present at the first meeting, or Oil and Hazardous Materials Response might be unnecessary in circumstances.

(7) “[…] un Etat contractuel qui se caractérise par une volonté de privatisation de l’autorité publique et une priorité accordée à la sécurité nationale”.

(8) “[…] prévoyant de sécuriser l’espace et de déléguer aux structures locales et associatives le soin de prendre en charge les coûts sociaux de la catastrophe, […] pour la première fois exposée à la population sur le sol américain”.

(9) Brown was Director of FEMA from 15th April of 2003 to 12 September of 2005; when he resigned two weeks after Katrina’s landfall in response to the outcry over management of the response.

(10) The Insurrection Act of 1807 specifies certain circumstances such as insurrection, under which the President may deploy active duty troops domestically. As noted earlier in the paper, such circumstances are very limited, and it is the National Guard which performs most domestic functions. 




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List of Interviews

Adams, Brian “Hootie,” Emergency Management Director, and Jenifer Lacoste, Emergency Management Agency, HancockCounty, 20 March 2014 (Hancock County).

Carwile, William, retired FEMA staff and the Federal Coordinating Officer for Mississippi during Katrina, 24 January 2014 (phone interview).

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Hedge-Morrell, Cynthia, New Orleans City Councilwoman, 2 April 2014 (phone interview).

Kellar, Tim, Chancery Clerk and CountyAdministrator, Hancock County, 19 March 2014 (Hancock County).

Simpson, Steve, Emergency Management Agency, Manatee County, Florida, 2 April 2014 (phone interview).

Smith, Jeff, Deputy Director of the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness at the time of Katrina, 25 March 2014 (outside of Baton Rouge).

Wilkerson, Bruce, Emergency Management Agency, Harrison County, 18 March 2014 (Hancock County).


Pour citer cet article

Malka Older, "Securitization of Disaster Response in the United States: The Case of Hurricane Katrina (2005)", RITA [en ligne], n°9: juin 2016, mis en ligne le 4 juillet 2016. Disponible en ligne :