Reassessing the Effectiveness of All-Hazards Planning in Emergency Management

By Peter A. Gregory
2015, Vol. 7 No. 06 | pg. 2/2 |

Hurricane Katrina: A Story of Failure

The most cited example regarding the failure of an all-hazards plan is by far the example of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, an event already referenced in this paper. While it is perhaps an overused example, it is an example that is useful in demonstrating the reality of many of the weaknesses of all-hazards planning heretofore discussed. Firstly, we see that the generalness of the all-hazard plans that the affected states had in place prior to Katrina's landfall were crippling in its aftermath.

Having been completely overwhelmed by the storm, in part due to the fact that each of the states' various plans had only anticipated the most common problems at their most common intensity, there was no larger plan in place to be brought into effect afterward. No one prior to the hurricane had anticipated even the possibility of such a devastating storm, and so the infrastructure, resources, and plans needed for an immediate response to the event were virtually non-existent, slowing the overall response time and forcing a mass diaspora of displaced American citizens. As of 2013, eight years after the hurricane, the population of New Orleans had returned to less than 70% of its original population (Baylon, 2013).

Another failure and weakness of all-hazards planning discussed in this paper and found in the example of Hurricane Katrina is the failure of competent leadership shown by government officials both before and after the storm. As was already mentioned, the head of FEMA at the time, Michael D. Brown, had little or no real world experience with emergency management, and he was totally unprepared and thus unable to offer aid to the victims of Katrina in a timely manner. Brown is not the only leader to blame, however, as Hurricane Katrina “seemed to capture leaders at all levels unprepared,” and this despite the several days of warning garnered by the early warnings of the National Hurricane Center (Manuel, 2013, p. 153).

Additionally, in the case of New Orleans specifically, several studies had indicated years prior to the disaster that a direct hit by a hurricane would cause mass flooding in the city, suggesting that the city's government at the local and state levels simply chose to ignore an impending threat until it became all too real (Fischette, 2001). It seems that they were over confident in the safety and structural integrity of their city. After all, there was an all-hazards plan in place, and thus, as they may have seen it, no need for further worry.

A Successful Response to Hurricane Sandy

Seven years after Hurricane Katrina, in 2012, Hurricane Sandy, “the second-largest Atlantic storm on record, affected the East Coast from Florida to Maine, as well as states as far inland as West Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana (Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2013, p. iii). This storm, while different than Katrina in both its total size and intensity, was also hugely devastating, and given the storm's nature and the freshness of Katrina in the minds of all Americans at the time it came ashore, “comparisons to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 [are] unavoidable” (Baylon, 2013). Compared to the government’s response to Katrina, its response to Hurricane Sandy was a rousing success, exemplifying in many ways the strengths of an all-hazards plan when properly constructed, maintained, and administered.

From the earliest warnings of Hurricane Sandy's impending landfall, the ICS was used almost flawlessly by government organizations to facilitate effective and clear communication. The coordination of the local and federal governments with various agencies and community groups saved a good deal of time, effort, and money in both pre-storm and post-storm efforts. The prior planning and preparation of the affected states for a storm that was most definitely out of the ordinary, “saved countless lives,” and simultaneously speeded the response and recovery processes (Manuel, 2013, p. 153).

Additionally, it should be noted that “much of the credit for FEMA's improved image has been given to” the leadership shown by W. Craig Fugate, a man who has a good deal of emergency management experience and replaced Michael D. Brown as the head of FEMA in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (Vogel, 2012). Many believe that the “success” of Hurricane Sandy is due in large part to his leadership, preparation, and preventative actions. Under his leadership, there was a single, clear all-hazards plan in place that everyone was aware of, again aiding in the effectiveness of emergency efforts by eliminating multiple plans that may have contained conflicting courses of action.


While these two hurricanes are not the only examples of failures or successes surrounding the use of all-hazards planning, they are the most well known. FEMA alone, an organization operating on the federal level, has a past that is riddled with both failure and success, seemingly in almost equal measure (Czerwinski, 2012). As such, it is easy to assume that the success records of state and local all-hazards plans show similar results. Additionally and unfortunately, as a whole, experience from just the last several years, just since the beginning of the century, have shown a disturbing trend; while “knowledge about the causes and consequences of hazards is increasing,” the damages sustained because of them “continue to rise dramatically” (Berke & Smith, 2009, p. 87).

This trend and FEMA's track record seem to suggest that, ultimately, it is not whether or not a federal, state, or local government is in possession of an all-hazards plan, but if said plan is adequately constructed and implemented both prior to and in the event of an emergency that matters. One example of this principle might be training. Simply having emergency personnel will not matter if they are not trained to know how to respond to emergency situations. A plan does little good without the knowledge and preparation needed to make it effective, and an all-hazards plan will similarly do little good for those who do not know how to use it or are over reliant on the mere fact of its existence. However, for those who are aware of the inherent weaknesses in all-hazards planning and are also aware of its strengths, the all-hazards approach to emergency management will make them the most likely to succeed in mitigating disasters.

In general, the all-hazards approach to emergency management is a highly effective one. It is cost-effective, provides an excellent framework for responding to disasters, is hands-on, and encourages cooperation between non-profits, businesses, communities, and various levels of government. It enhances communication and coordination between organizations both before and after emergencies, increasing their efficiency and ability to respond.

Like any system, however, it has imperfections, many of which stem from inefficient administration and a false sense of security that the phrase “all-hazards” can sometimes provide. It is not ideally suited to deal directly terrorism, but can be an effective method of facilitating aid and communication in either the event of a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. Like a tool made for a specific purpose, all-hazards planning is only effective in fulfilling its intended purpose if those using it are aware of how to use it, and more effective in the hands of those with experience.


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