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The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned or Lessons Observed? Open Access

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When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in August 2005, it exposed gaps in the nation's response system for catastrophic disasters. The failed Federal response was the subject of multiple reviews, including those conducted by the executive and legislative branches. However, little subsequent attention has focused on whether lessons from the disaster were learned or merely observed. Because the reviews undertaken by the executive branch were conducted in private and not subject to public scrutiny, this dissertation considers, for the first time, the perspectives of policy elites involved in the reviews. It determines if policies adopted as a result of the reviews were informed by serious consideration of the factors that contributed to the failed response. This study considers the White House review of Hurricane Katrina and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) review of the National Response Plan (NRP) as its two cases. It uses the theory of policy learning to examine how new information and ideas were applied to policy instruments that resulted from the reviews. This study finds that there is evidence of policy learning as a result of the reviews, but the type of policy learning varied and learning was not uniform among the policy elites involved. Furthermore, it finds that several factors influenced whether policy learning occurred. The results of this study may inform future after-action reviews and enable the nation to more effectively learn lessons from disasters.

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