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FEMA, Katrina, and operations research: better operations management would have helped FEMA in preparedness and response work before Hurricane Katrina--and still could now.

In the wake of the poor government response to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster, many questions have been asked about why the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), along with a host of other federal, state, and local emergency management agencies, performed so ineffectively. What went wrong? What is the future of the agency? How can a recurrence of the Katrina debacle be prevented? This article explores whether FEMA and other disaster management agencies may have overlooked the importance of "operations research" and "operations management" (OM) in preparedness and response work before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.

Many investigations followed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in late 2005 through 2006. Communications problems were alleged to be a factor. Poor leadership of FEMA was another claim. Failures of intergovernmental relations, particularly between the president and the governor of Louisiana, were also put forward.

The congressional report, Failure of Initiative, constantly refers to FEMA's problems in maintaining "situational awareness." Might it be that FEMA, when it needed to function as a "machine bureaucracy" in the interest of accelerated response to public needs created by the Katrina catastrophe, did not employ enough managers with the requisite OM skill sets needed for such circumstances? Might it also be that FEMA officials were not prepared to make predisaster arrangements with private contractors and nonprofit organizations on the basis of sound OM principles?

"Operations managers" possess skills and abilities that could help deliver smoother, faster, and more efficient disaster relief.

FEMA and Katrina

Once Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast, FEMA faced a disaster of catastrophic proportions. When the levees in New Orleans collapsed, a second catastrophe compounded the problem. Some allege that FEMA simply was not ready for a disaster of Katrina's complexity and magnitude. James Miskel argues that FEMA is capable of handling routine disasters but not catastrophic ones. He contends that no national government agency, regardless of state and local help, could be expected to manage a catastrophe, and he sees Katrina as a catastrophe. Confirming or refuting Miskel's claim is difficult because identifying the threshold that separates "routine" from "catastrophic" disasters is problematic.

After Katrina struck, tens of thousands of people were displaced from their homes, a thousand more were dead, and many needed rescue. FEMA found itself in the national spotlight. The agency, working under its new and largely untested National Response Plan (NRP), could not provide enough relief fast enough for all of the people in need. Examples of FEMA bungling were widespread, many recounted in Douglas Brinkley's extraordinary book The Great Deluge. Communications between FEMA and state and local authorities were inadequate.A major political" blame game" ensued as news media people and a host of elected government officials sought to identify who was responsible for the slowness and defficiencies in government emergency response.

In mid-September 2005, FEMA Director Michael D. Brown resigned from his position, helping to absorb or deflect considerable blame directed at the Bush administration. The reasons for the inadequate intergovernmental response to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath are many, so laying the blame on one or a handful of government officials is shortsighted. The system by which relief is dispensed in a catastrophic disaster is a major part of the problem.

Operations Management

OM is the part of the business world that focuses on the "process" a firm uses to provide a product or service to the consumer. At its most basic, it is the transformation process that takes raw materials, labor, and capital and turns them into final products or services, adding value for the customer. The goal of OM is to produce a product or a service in the most efficient way.

People like Henry Ford and Eli Whitney conceived and then applied their ideas to a working environment in which efficiency was given primacy. The assembly line and cotton gin are examples of OM thinking. These figures and many others throughout history were simply looking for the cheapest and most efficient way to produce a product.

Although people like Ford and Whitney were not educated in the field of OM, their approaches were perfectly consistent with it. In the early part of the twentieth century, the field began to flourish. OM is consistent with the scientific management approach, widely popular in public administration and the corporate world from the 1920s to the 1950s. The bureaucratic model associated with scientific management has a host of drawbacks, but operations research and management should not be abandoned. In the mid-1900s many in U.S. universities were drawn to the precision, logic, and functionality of operations research.

OM promotes skill sets that apply to many business fields. Inherent is the need to know how to run a business that produces optimal outputs. OM asks managers to gauge capacity planning, which means finding out how much your firm can actually produce and then planning to meet the demand of the consumer. OM also stresses the appropriate management of inventories. Does the firm possess sufficient inventory such that unexpected increases in demand will not cause product shortages or price hikes? Another OM skill set involves scheduling. Is everything where it needs to be at the right time in order to ensure an efficient process? Prepositioning commodities needed in the wake of a disaster is not a one-time task. FEMA, using OM principles, needs to become adroit and dynamic in identifying optimal locations and in monitoring available commodity inventories, particularly as they are drawn down by the big and small disaster responses they supply.

In the same sense that strategically locates product warehouses and shipping facilities around the nation and so is able to deliver products in an automated way (computerization, Internet use, and bar-coding, etc.) with a quick turnaround, so too should FEMA engage in commodity shipment planning. State and local emergency managers, as well as disaster victims and nonprofits active in disasters, should be free to direct disaster relief requests into a system that is capable of performing at least as responsively as

OM also asks managers to engage in forecasting, the skill to foresee how much will be demanded in the future. Facilities location is another related concern: managers need to situate the firm's facilities where transportation costs are minimized. Finally, there is quality assurance, where an operations manager is taught to ensure products are of the quality demanded. These skills are commonly necessary in the business world, and they could be incorporated into the field of government disaster management.

FEMA and Private Business

FEMA, though a government agency, has much in common with a private business. Both provide services or products, and both face a demand curve that varies. Ironically, FEMA relies on a host of contractors to furnish disaster relief. Many of these firms are themselves for profit private-sector businesses.

A business provides either a product or service to a consumer. In many respects, FEMA provides, either directly or indirectly, services and products to "consumers." Former FEMA Director James Lee Witt used to tout the agency's success in "customer satisfaction." In this vein, FEMA provides disaster relief and funding to people living in areas devastated by disaster, information to disaster victims, a system for requesting certain forms of aid, and in-kind commodities--usually through various contractors and suppliers or through government-stored commodities.

Like a business, the demand for FEMA's services and commodities varies daily. When the president declares a major disaster in a state and its affected counties, the demand for FEMA's services and commodities increases in that locale. Conversely, FEMA does not need to provide as many services or commodities in locales not declared disasters.

From 1953 to 2007, the president declared almost 1,700 disasters, and from 1974 to 2007, almost 300 emergencies. Mapping the location and frequency of such declarations, identifying the type of disaster agent involved, and modeling and projecting the recurrence of many of them are all possible. Susan Cutter's book American Hazardscapes and the Public Entity Risk Institute's presidential disaster declaration Web site (developed by the author) provide location information about federally declared disasters in the United States. Although seemingly simplistic, if companies such as Lowe's, Home Depot, and McDonald's can model where customer demand is for their products and configure production, supply, and retail operations accordingly, FEMA could do the same.

Much was made of FedEx and UPS carrier business effectiveness as a model for how FEMA should have operated after Hurricane Katrina. Although the comparison is unfair in many respects, FEMA could benefit from emulating the OM traits of those businesses and others that depend on tightly coupled, highly reliable services. The excuse that disasters are too infrequent to be predicted or anticipated is not wholly valid.

Simply achieving more "situational awareness" by adding more video capacity and network communications to address future Katrina-scale catastrophes is not the total solution to better disaster relief dispensation. It's what disaster managers actually do with the added information that counts.

FEMA contracts out a considerable share of its disaster relief work. How many of these firms engage in OM for disaster relief? To what degree do FEMA contract managers even know they should demand this in their proposal solicitations? In the wake of the Katrina disaster, FEMA issued new contracts to augment old ones. Emergency contracts were issued for technical assistance for critically needed services such as setting up disaster recovery centers, hauling and installing temporary housing, and other logistical and facilities management needs in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in early September. The criteria for contract awards are varied and complex, but rebid or new contracts should consider a firm's OM expertise among the other factors for award.


All organizations have an inventory of equipment, including the people employed and actual equipment, such as computers, food items, and blankets. Operations managers have acquired skills that allow them to recognize the inventory items, quantities, and locations needed, while seeking to minimize costs. Consider the problem of vaccines needed to address the threat of pandemic disease. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's NRP states, "Shortages of available supplies of preventive and therapeutic pharmaceuticals and qualified medical personnel to administer available prophylaxis are likely." Problems like these can be solved; personnel with OM backgrounds can address them.

Arguably, OM approaches to disaster management would help FEMA reduce waste and trim the costs of disaster for the national taxpayer. In disaster mitigation programs, such as those involving buyout or relocation decisions, operations managers could assist in decision making, particularly for planners facilitating resettlement.

Operations managers can help FEMA in many other ways, providing leadership, organization, and other skills. Some personnel within FEMA have business backgrounds, and some have experience in OM, but a great many do not. People with OM expertise could help improve FEMA's sorely tested tele-registration system of applicant assistance. They could tutor FEMA contracting officers in acquisition efforts to solicit bids from and make awards to vendors that incorporate OM tenets into these arrangements.


OM is a field FEMA officials should consider in their hiring practices. People with expertise in this field possess skills in leadership, organization, and inventory management. Any evaluation of FEMA's performance in disaster relief, whether in Hurricane Katrina or any other disaster, should gauge its facility in the use of OM principles. This could improve predisaster preparedness and postdisaster response. People with political and generalist backgrounds are still needed in FEMA, but the agency would be wise to recruit more managers with operations research education and experience.


Brinkley, Douglas. The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast (New York: William Morrow, 2006).

Cutter, Susan L., ed. American Hazardscapes: The Regionalization of Hazards and Disasters (Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press, 2001).

Miskel, James F. Disaster Response and Homeland Security: What Works, What Doesn't (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Security International, 2006).

Public Entity Risk Institute. "All About Presidential Disaster Declarations."

U.S. House of Representatives. Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina. A Failure of Initiative. 109th Congress, Second Session (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2006).

Richard Sylves is professor of political science and international relations and senior policy fellow of the Center on Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Delaware. He was an appointed member of the National Academy of Science Disasters Roundtable in 2002--05 and coedited (with W. Waugh) Cities and Disaster (1991) and Disaster Management in the U.S. and Canada (1996). He wrote The Nuclear Oracles: A Political History of the General Advisory Commission of the AEC (1986) and has done extensive research and writing on presidential declarations of disaster ( He can be contacted at
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Author:Sylves, Richard
Publication:The Public Manager
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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