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Hurricane Katrina: Communication Challenges Research Paper

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Updated: Oct 30th, 2020


Hurricane Katrina is one of the deadliest disasters in the history of the United States. Over 1,800 people were killed, and millions of people became homeless in several days (Rogers, 2015). Alperen (2011) stresses that all the agencies involved were ineffective while the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was specifically inefficient. It is necessary to note that this natural disaster revealed law enforcement agencies’ unpreparedness to respond to a catastrophe of such a scale. In particular, communication (internal and among agencies) was inefficient, which led to such a large death toll and financial losses. The hurricane provided a lot of lessons to be learned regarding the response to such natural disasters.

Communication Issues

First, it is necessary to stress that the communication channels have been severely damaged or rather destroyed. Almost 80% of telephone lines were destroyed, which made it impossible for people to inform first responders about their locations or their need for help (Alperen, 2011). Moreover, other channels were also almost destroyed as radios, cell phones, the Internet, as well as backup systems failed (Sasso, 2015). Although they relied on satellites, they were powered by electric lines (which were wiped out) or batteries that could not function for a prolonged period. Sasso (2015) mentions that people had to rely on really basic tools such as writing notes and putting them into bottles that were dropped from helicopters. It is possible to state that one of the major reasons for the ineffectiveness of the response was officials’ inability to foresee the loss of major communication channels.

As far as the response of FEMA is concerned, the major issues were associated with its inability to communicate with other stakeholders including the state’s government and local law enforcement agencies. The internal communication was quite effective, but FEMA did not have adequate data from state authorities, which had adverse effects on its response measures. Alperen (2011) states that military forces were even less effective as there was limited knowledge sharing. The agencies did not have proper platforms to share information, which led to a lack of coordination. Hospitals’ response was also quite ineffective as many healthcare facilities could not inform about their needs (they could not evacuate their patients). The overall evaluation of different agencies’ responses shows that the chaotic actions were due to almost non-existent external communication.

Consequences of the Communication Challenges

It is rather difficult to estimate the particular impact of each inefficient activity or inappropriate response. It is possible to note that the large death toll and millions of dollars lost were a result of agencies’ complete unpreparedness and the lack of proper plans to act under such difficult circumstances. State officials received the warning timely, but even evacuation efforts were not effective. Importantly, the evacuation sites had limited or even no resources to help the evacuated wait for aid. At the same time, another serious effect of the inefficient response and lack of communication was civil unrest (Alperen, 2011). People simply did not know what to expect and what to do. Many lost their hope and thought they were abandoned, which led to various violent acts and a lot of victims.

Steps Taken and the Ones That Could Be Taken

It is possible to state that the agencies undertook almost no steps to address the communication challenges they faced. There was a certain collaboration between the agencies before the hurricane struck the land, but this collaboration was even less effective when addressing the aftermaths of the disaster. The major problem was that the agencies had little actual information from the affected territories (Alperen, 2011). The affected people could not inform agencies due to the destruction of the communication networks. Therefore, the agencies were quite blind, which led to inefficient responses. One of the measures undertaken to restore communication channels was the use of ad-hoc networks that included mobile platforms such as cellular on wheels that enabled people to inform law enforcement professionals about their location and needs (Alperen, 2011). However, these efforts had quite limited effects as the number of the used platforms was not sufficient.

Alperen (2011) also notes that agencies focused on responding to the disaster rather than developing the necessary communication channels. However, it was a vital task to perform in the first place. FEMA could be the major agent when addressing this issue. This organization had to ensure the development of the knowledge-sharing platform and effective communication channels available to all the involved agencies. This platform could be used to coordinate the activities of the agencies.

Importantly, it was essential to making sure that law enforcement professionals had the necessary tools to share information. There were difficulties with powering communication tools as well as using available communication networks (Alperen, 2011). It was essential to provide different communication tools and backup systems in large quantities to the nearest unaffected areas. These tools were essential for professionals who worked in the affected territories.

Apart from the techniques used to inform people mentioned above (dropping bottles with messages), agencies did not develop communication channels to inform affected people. One of the ways to do that could be the distribution of portable backup systems that could enable people to use their devices. These portable systems had to be places in evacuation sites as well as spots where people were trapped. Another way to enable people to communicate was to distribute radio systems so that people could obtain the most relevant information (concerning actions in different situations, evacuation sites’ locations, shelters, and so on).

Finally, FEMA and other law enforcement agencies ignored volunteers’ suggestions or even prevented individuals and organizations from providing their help (Alperen, 2011). However, volunteers can be a significant force that enhances the effort of law enforcement agencies. Coordination of these efforts is vital. Therefore, FEMA had to create a knowledge-sharing platform used by law enforcement agencies and volunteers. Volunteers could provide information on the needs of people and things they could do or provide, while law enforcement agencies could also reveal tools or services needed and grant their permission to complete certain tasks.


In conclusion, it is possible to note that Hurricane Katrina can be regarded as a major lesson to be learned about possible communication challenges. These challenges include the partial or complete destruction of communication networks, the lack of an effective knowledge-sharing platform, and the lack of coordination between different agencies. Some of the strategies to use when responding to a disaster of such a scale include the use of portable backup systems, mobile platforms, radio systems, and so on. The disaster revealed the need to use the help of volunteers that could be effective if proper communication channels are employed. The lessons learned can help in responding to such disasters in the future.


Alperen, M. J. (2011). Foundations of homeland security: Law and policy. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Rogers, J. (2015). 10 years on, Hurricane Katrina’s lessons still resonate. Fox News. Web.

Sasso, B. (2015). The Atlantic. Web.

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