The Lessons of Katrina for Intelligent Public Decision Making

in Nature and Culture

Was the Hurricane Katrina disaster an aberration, or did it emerge from decision-making processes similar to those governing other public outcomes? Is it more reasonable to expect post-disaster analyses to lead to systematic learning and improved policy, or not to change very much? Most generally, what can be learned about appropriate expertise and usable knowledge from the Katrina experience? I argue that many of the same processes and institutions are at work to create vulnerable populations, design the built environment carelessly with respect to public values, place barriers in the way of preventive action, and make it difficult for experts to contribute to improved outcomes. No doubt there will be some hurricane-specific learning in Katrina's wake, such as more houses on stilts, but political influentials are unlikely to revamp the systemic norms, practices, and institutions that helped shape the disaster. Implications are discussed for interdisciplinary, problem-focused research and community service by scientists, engineers, and other experts.