The study of the sociology of disasters is a recognized specialty. David Glenn (2005) compares them to "surfers who wait for storm swells." For them, the real issue surrounding Hurricane Katrina lies in understanding, and developing ways to avoid, what Glenn calls "the abysmal organizational failures that apparently cost so many lives in New Orleans."
"One of the central tenets of disaster sociology is that most communities can, to a large degree, spontaneously heal themselves. People affected by disaster obviously often need resources from the outside world -- food, water, shelter. But that does not mean that disaster victims also need outside direction and coordination, most scholars in the field say."
Glenn draws the inevitable comparison of Katrina to the 9/11 attacks. "Spontaneous cooperation" is said to have led to the extraordinarily successful evacuation of Lower Manhattan during the attacks on the World Trade Center. "James M. Kendra, an assistant professor of emergency administration and planning at the University of North Texas, estimates that nearly half a million people fled Manhattan on boats -- and he emphasizes that the waterborne evacuation was a self-organized volunteer process that could probably never have been planned on a government official's clipboard.
"Various kinds of private companies, dinner-cruise boats, people with their own personal watercraft, the Coast Guard, the harbor pilots -- in very short order, they managed to organize this evacuation," Mr. Kendra said."
The evacuation in New Orleans, of course, was not so smooth. Disaster sociologists say that they are eager to determine how much chaos and looting actually occurred there, and how much was conjured through rumor and news-media exaggeration.
Russell R. Dynes, a professor emeritus of sociology at Delaware, suggests that "One of the problems here is TV. If you take a film clip and you run it for five hours, you create a notion that something's happening." Michael K. Lindell, a psychologist who directs the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University at College Station adds that those affected by a disaster, when reporters stick a microphone in their face, often say "I panicked," reinforcing the "idea that there's a thin veneer of civilization, which vanishes after a disaster, and that you need outside authorities and the military to restore order. But really, people usually do very well for themselves, thank you."
Although scholars disagree about whether social breakdown occurred during Katrina, they are unanimous about the question of organizational breakdown. It will take months to determine, however, exactly how and why Louisiana's local and federal preparedness plans collapsed.
Some assert that the federal shortcomings stem from having folded the Federal Emergency Management Agency into the Department of Homeland Security. "The structure of the Department of Homeland Security is not conducive to good emergency management," said William L. Waugh Jr., a professor of public policy at Georgia State University. "It isn't even conducive to homeland security."
Waugh says that FEMA and other small agencies have not successfully competed for money and attention because they do not mix well with what he calls the "gun-toting" culture of the intelligence and law-enforcement agencies that dominate the department.
Glenn adds that the department is also "hamstrung by a ‘command and control’ mentality that is ill suited to the realities of disasters."
"One of the things that's very consistently found," said Delaware's Mr. Dynes, "is that in a disaster, decisions are made at lower levels than they are made normally because you're confronted with a situation, and … You've got to make a decision. So any decision in any organization is going to be made at lower levels than in normal times."
Glenn discusses "warning-response theory," the study of how people react to public announcements about potential threats. One model uses six stages of warning:
First, vulnerable people must hear the warning;
second, they must understand its contents;
third, they must believe that it is credible and accurate;
fourth, they must personalize the warning as applying to themselves;
fifth, they will observe whether their friends and neighbors are taking protective action; and, finally, they will take protective action themselves.
As Katrina made its way across the Gulf of Mexico, government agencies and the news media did not put those scholarly insights into practice adequately, Mr. Sorensen said. "My guess is that they really did not do a good job of conveying to people what a flood in New Orleans would mean," he said. "Like: 'You will be in your attic for five days.' Or: 'The only safe place may be on the roof of your house.' And I really didn't hear that coming out of the national coverage."
Glenn, David. “Disaster Sociologists Study What Went Wrong in the Response to the Hurricanes, but Will Policy Makers Listen?” Chronicle of Higher Education. September 29, 2005.