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Hurricane Katrina: Government Ethical Dilemmas

Leadership and Decision-Making Issues

Many people are convinced that Hurricane Katrina should be considered as a prime example of government failure. And that is true. Looking back, we can see leadership failures at every possible level: local, state, and federal. First of all, the American government systems are decentralized, which is why the integration between levels is too weak. During his interview, Hrebiniak claims, “Bush should have had the right people in Homeland Security or FEMA contact these [local and state] people and say, ‘We’ve got a hurricane coming. Who should respond first? What resources do you need?’” (A Month after Katrina, 2005, par. 8).

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Indeed, the planning was poor, and that resulted in the local and state government misallocating their resources. If fact, the necessary resources were available, but nobody knew where those should have been located. For example, they had buses to evacuate people – they just did not have those in the right place. One of the main mistakes here was that Mayor Ray Nagin did not have any backup communications to use when other means of communication go out. That is why the communication systems failed, and many flooded regions were just cut off.

Additionally, there was an inability to build infrastructure and negligence in preparing for the catastrophe, although the top-level leaders were forewarned about it. That is where the federal authorities were no less guilty than the local ones. As Mittelstaedt stated, “Those of us who grew up in New Orleans always understood [that massive flooding caused by a storm] was possible” (A Month after Katrina, 2005, par. 19). Despite that fact, nothing was done to maintain the levees. The responsibility principally lies at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which are in charge of the maintenance and protection of the levees and the rest of flood defenses (Campanella, 2015, par. 5). Later, in the report on that disaster, the Corps admitted that it was their failure and that it should be considered as a lesson to be learned regarding more reliable flood protection systems (Hoar, 2006, par. 3). Additionally, when the catastrophe happened, the federal government responded sluggishly to it. Even though many people, businesses, and charities wanted to help, the authorities kept them from doing this.

As for the state level, many leadership mistakes were made here as well. Firstly, even that money, which the state government received for the Army Corps of Engineers projects, was spent on projects that had nothing to do with levees or flood control (Boaz, 2005, par. 9). That was a huge mistake since those in command knew that such kind of disaster could happen. Secondly, they had weak disaster plans, which did not even imply the evacuation of people. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco failed to provide those suffering from the hurricane with water, food, medications, and other relief supplies. Additionally, although there were a lot of doctors who were ready to do their duty, it took her several days to let them do this.

Ethical Dilemmas Faced by Decision Makers

One of the most difficult ethical dilemmas connected to Hurricane Katrina is whether the federal government should or should not provide for the welfare of those suffering from the hurricane. On the one hand, it seems reasonable and natural. On the contrary, the American Constitution does not say that the federal government should somehow interfere in such kind of cases. According to the General Welfare Clause, the federal government has to do what is beneficial for the “greatest good for the greatest number” (McGee, 2008, p. 549). And the population of the Gulf Coast (which suffered the most from Katrina) is less than 1% of the population of the U.S., and that is obviously not a majority. There is also another significant ethical dilemma, which is very close to the previous one. It is about the taxpayers and the spending of the tax funds.

The problem is that the federal government has power but has not any resources on its own. Therefore, to give money to someone, it has to take it from someone else at first. Is it fair that the taxpayers of other states, as California or Oregon, for example, are forced to pay extra money to provide for the welfare of the people of New Orleans? The answer is not so obvious. When FEMA issues $2,000 debit cards to some of those suffering from Katrina, many of them “used those debit cards to buy beer (and presumably other things) at strip clubs” (McGee, 2008, p. 549). And it seems really wrong that the taxpaying public (including not very wealthy people) is involved in this.

Pre-Existing Issues that Exacerbated the Crisis

Several pre-existing issues exacerbated the consequences of Katrina and the crisis this hurricane caused. Firstly, the president did not seem to understand the needs and interests of average people and especially poor ones. In January 2005, during the survey conducted by ABC News, 56% of interviewees responded negatively to the question “Does Bush understand the problems of people like you” (Cook, 2005, par. 3). Secondly, the president and his team were too concerned about external issues, particularly about the war in Iraq, and did not notice many domestic problems. These two issues had never been addressed, and that is why the crisis caused by Katrina was even more acute. Later, the president’s team was criticized for its methods of handling Katrina many times. Finally, many of the pre-existing issues have already been discussed in the first paragraph. Those are various leadership failures, which have contributed to the crisis.

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Lessons Learned

Firstly, external and international issues should not distract the attention of the president’s administration from domestic problems. Secondly, the president should be aware of how average people react to his policies and actions. If those two issues were addressed in the first place, the president would have much more support from his people. The third lesson to learn is that the federal government should not always be involved. Sometimes it is better to solve problems in other ways, especially those concerning money. For example, when there was a dilemma about New Orleans (whether to rebuild it or leave it abandoned), investors or businessmen could have been involved instead of the federal government. The fourth lesson is about taxes. Spending the tax funds on debit cards for victims is not an option. Finally, all levels of government systems should be better prepared for such kind of natural disasters and take every possible measure to minimize the negative consequences. To avoid similar mistakes in the future, these lessons should be translated into particular government policies.


A Month after Katrina: Lessons from Leadership Failures. (2005). Web.

Boaz, D. (2005). Catastrophe in Big Easy Demonstrates Big Government’s Failure. Web.

Campanella, R. (2015). A Katrina Lexicon: How we talk about a disaster so monumental we can’t agree on what to call it. Web.

Cook, C. (2005). Katrina Worsened Pre-Existing Bush Woes. Web.

Hoar, J. (2006). Katrina Report Blames Levees. Web.

McGee, R. W. (2008). An economic and ethical analysis of the Katrina disaster. International Journal of Social Economics, 35(7), 546-557.

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