As Tropical Storm Isaac is upgraded to Hurricane Isaac, the national media’s focus is on comparing the potential impact of Hurricane Isaac to Hurricane Katrina.
Given that Hurricane Isaac appears headed to New Orleans and may hit land exactly seven years after Hurricane Katrina did, this focus is natural. With this focus comes the inevitable question on whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is “prepared.” But a more important question is whether New Orleans and Louisiana are prepared for Hurricane Isaac.
Though it became easy to scapegoat former FEMA Director Michael Brown for FEMA’s failure during Hurricane Katrina, the reality is that FEMA’s failure occurred only because Mayor Ray Nagin (D) first failed to evacuate his city, and then-Governor Kathleen Blanco (D) failed to evacuate New Orleans and the surrounding region. Had the correct actions occurred at the local and state levels, FEMA’s ability to serve as the final backstop would never have been tested.
Of course, seven years after Katrina, FEMA has made progress to put in place the capabilities it will need to deal with most catastrophic events. The real issue for FEMA is whether it can handle an exceptional catastrophic event. Hurricane Isaac may or may not help us answer that question.
Remember that FEMA under Brown successfully dealt with four hurricanes hitting Florida in September 2004, a mere 11 months before Hurricane Katrina. FEMA’s performance with those four routine hurricanes obviously did not mean it could handle a truly catastrophic event like Katrina. The same false assurance may be the outcome with Hurricane Isaac, especially if it remains a Category 2 or weaker hurricane.
Of all the government players involved in responding to a disaster, FEMA is the one farthest from the disaster zone. This geographic limitation is why we have advocated for the end of the centralization of natural disasters and for state and localities to resume their primary responsibilities in dealing with events that occur in their spheres of control.
Hurricane Isaac will certainly contain echoes of Hurricane Katrina, but whether those echoes will mean anything remains to be seen.