— Volume I No. 2: Fall 2005 —

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Hurricane Katrina as a Predictable Surprise


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Larry Irons

Larry Irons received his PhD in sociology from Washington University in St. Louis where he was a university fellow. He is a senior fellow with the National Institute for Strategic Preparedness, a learning architect with Teleologic Learning Company, and an adjunct assistant professor of sociology at the University of Missouri — St. Louis. He is a coauthor, with Craig Baldwin and Philip Palin, of Catastrophe Preparation and Prevention for Law Enforcement Professionals (McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2008) and Catastrophe Preparation and Prevention for Fire Service Professionals (McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2008). Dr. Irons can be reached at lirons@teleologic.net.

The concept of predictable surprises, i.e. failures to take preventative action in the face of known threats, was outlined by Max Bazerman and Michael Watkins in their book by the same name. This paper discusses predictable surprises as primarily organizational events that result from failure of organizational processes to support surprise-avoidance rather than surprise-conducive actions by individual members. The analysis contends that learning organizations are characterized by processes that support surprise-avoidance. The affective heuristic is useful to prevention studies since it points to aspects of social cognition that are central to envisioning consequences for low probability events. Surprise-avoidance organizational processes are central to using the affective heuristic to bolster rational decision-making. The paper asks whether the preparation and response of federal agencies in New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina was a predictable surprise. The discussion examines the role of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in preparing the levee protection system, asking whether its organizational processes supported surprise-avoidance, or were surprise-conducive. FEMA’s Katrina response is also reviewed with the same concerns. The actions of each agency are considered along four characteristic traits of predictable surprises. The study offers several policy proposals, some presented by the Secretary of Homeland Security and others stemming from insights developed in the current analysis.

Read full article.

Irons, Larry. “Hurricane Katrina as a Predictable Surprise.” Homeland Security Affairs 1, issue 2 (August 2006)