Better information would have been an optimal weapon against Katrina.

                    -U.S. House Select Bipartisan Committee

On Monday, August 29th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall. She was the most expensive natural disaster, and the most dangerous hurricane in United States history.  At least 1,836 dead, and nearly $81 million dollars of property damage were left behind in her wake. Katrina, a powerful Category 5 storm over open water, made landfall as a Category 3 hurricane. What made Katrina especially devastating had very little to do with high hurricane force winds and more to do with storm surge coupled with the topography of New Orleans; the city is below sea level and is kept above water by a system of pumps and levees. The storm surge, 9 meters high in some areas, overwhelmed the levees and canals. “Federal officials had a single test for determining whether to treat the storm as an average disaster or as the catastrophic doomsday scenario everyone had feared: Had the levees been breached by Katrina’s storm surge, or had the water simply flooded over the top?” (Cooper, Block, wsj.com)  Brigadier General Matthew Broderick of the Homeland Security Operations Center (HSOC) was in charge of monitoring the situation with the levees and given the authority to assess whether or not the storm passed the doomsday scenario. Despite hearing evidence to the contrary, Broderick’s report on the eve of the disaster stated that “preliminary reports indicate the levees have not been breached” (Cooper, Block, wsj.com).  Leaders are often judged by one single decision, by one moment.  After a long and celebrated career, this was Brigadier General Matthew Broderick’s moment. The very traits that made him a celebrated military man betrayed him in the Big Easy.


Broderick, then the Director of Operations for the Department of Homeland Security, was a retired Marine brigadier general with 30 years experience. A veteran of Vietnam and Somalia, he possessed a background in military intelligence that “insisted on detailed information with multiple verifications, thus filtering out some of the key intelligence about levee breaches, the number of people at the convention center and other situations” (Garnett, Kouzmin 179).  Broderick is a man of facts with a cool head in a crisis.  In his statement during the hearing on the FEMA and HSOC response to Katrina, Broderick stated, “Based upon my years of experience, we should not help spread rumors or innuendo, nor should we rely on speculation or hype, and we should not react to initial or unconfirmed reports which are almost invariably lacking or incomplete” (Hurricane Katrina…hathitrust.org). His experience at the helm of the HSOC during previous hurricanes “taught him that early reports surrounding a major event are often false” (Campbell et al., hbr.org). He told investigators that “One of the jobs of the HSOC is to not overreact, not get hysterical and get the facts” (Cooper, Block, wsj.com).  So what facts did Broderick and the HSOC receive?

Katrina made landfall in the early morning of Monday, August 29th. A timeline released by the Senate investigative panel illuminates multiple reports of levee breaches. As early as 8:30 a.m., FEMA received reports that “a twenty-foot tidal surge…came up and breached the levee system in the canal,” and thirty minutes later another report from the Transportation Security Administration found that the Industrial Canal levee had been breached reporting “heavy street flooding throughout Orleans, St. Bernard, and Jefferson parishes.” Shortly after the National Weather service announced a flood warning, confirming the levee breach along the Industrial Canal. Similar reports of levee breaches and widespread flooding continued throughout the morning and into the early afternoon, yet a report from the HSOC released at 6 p.m. that evening stated that “Primary reports indicate the levees in New Orleans have not been breached” (Fessler, npr.org). What facts did Broderick consider in his decision making process? How did he arrive at a ground truth?

Broderick has stated that flooding was “typical, hurricane, background stuff…we have floods in Pennsylvania all the time. We have floods in New Jersey all the time. Every time there’s a hurricane, there’s a flood” (Cooper, Block, wsj.com). During the Senate hearing, Broderick explained some of his rationale:

“Now, there were reports coming in from other agencies, and that’s where we were trying to confirm…And in the French Quarter, on television, they were dancing and drinking beer and seemed to be having a party in the French Quarter of New Orleans that evening. So it led us to believe that the flooding may have just been an isolated incident, it was being handled, and it was being properly addressed because we were not seeing it” (Hurricane Katrina…hathitrust.org).

Broderick also dismissed the reports coming from the Army Corps of Engineers in Washington that cited extensive flooding, saying that “extensive is all relative” (Kromm, facingsouth.org). To his credit, Broderick did add to his 6 p.m. report that “further assessment would be needed the next day,” but by then it would be too late (Campbell et al., hbr.org). On August 30th is was confirmed that the levees had indeed been breached and could not be repaired and by August 31st, 85% of New Orleans was underwater. The slow federal response, that many feel was a major contributing factor in the high death toll, was a direct result of one decision, one statement made by Broderick: “Primary reports indicate the levees in New Orleans have not been breached.” In that single statement, Katrina failed the catastrophe test, even as the city was being slowly engulfed by water.

Theory Inflected Analysis of the Case at Hand.

Behavioral theory suggests that great leaders are made, not born and focuses on the actions of leaders (Russel, 5). As it is Broderick’s actions that are in question here, the lens of behavioral theory may provide some insight into this failure of leadership. Broderick used a democratic leadership style (one of three types of leadership encompassed in behavioral theory) when dealing with hurricane Katrina. According to Russell, “The democratic leader consults his subordinates then makes his decision (with or without using their input)” (Russell, 5). Broderick demonstrated democratic leadership when he solicited input from subordinates and outside sources, before making his decision that the levees were fine. How is it that Broderick, equipped with reports of levee breaches, made such a grave error? Perhaps it was not his leadership style that was flawed, but rather his decision making process.

In their Harvard Business Review article, Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions, Andrew Campbell, Jo Whitehead, and Sydney Finkelstein explore decision neuroscience to better understand how the brain functions when forced to make a decision based on a set of circumstances. To do so, the researchers first needed to identify flawed decisions. According to Campbell et al., “We sought out decisions that any clear-headed analysis at the time of the decision would have concluded to be wrong” (Campbell et al., 64). Through analysis of these flawed decisions, Campbell et al, have identified two factors that produce a bad decision. First, a person of authority has made an “error in judgment”. Second, “the initial erroneous views are not exposed and corrected” (Campbell et al., 64). Broderick’s decision to declare the levees secure displays an “error in judgment, coupled with the fact that his view was not “exposed and corrected” provides proof that this was a “flawed decision”.

Once the researchers were able to identify bad decisions, they focused their research on “how the brain makes decisions”. In doing so, they identified four conditions that promote flawed thinking. These “red flags” include misleading experiences, misleading pre-judgments, inappropriate self-interests, and inappropriate attachments. It seems that Broderick may have fallen victim to misleading experiences. Campbell et al., explains that the brain bases circumstance based decisions on pattern recognition and emotional tagging. Pattern recognition is the brain’s ability to recognize past events and outcomes and apply them to new scenarios. In turn the brain recalls the emotion evoked by the past turn of events and associates the “feeling” with the new scenario, telling the decision maker whether information is important or not. Broderick’s poor decision was likely fueled by his prior military experiences that told him that early-conflicting reports are often wrong. Pattern recognition and emotional tagging create decision bias. The researchers assert that it would be difficult for Broderick to avoid applying his prior experiences when assessing the levees during hurricane Katrina. What Broderick failed to recognize was that the city was below sea level, a key factor that would drastically change the outcome.

Based on their research, Campbell et al., have identified a few safeguards against bad decisions: experience, data and analysis, group debate and challenge, governance, and monitoring. All of these safeguards are designed to help the decision maker expose assumptions and beliefs that may bias their decision making capabilities.

Another study conducted by Matthew W. Seeger and Robert R. Ulmer, explored the connections between communication and responsible leadership as it pertains the Enron collapse and many of the insights offered are relevant to Broderick’s decision making process. In defining responsibility as it applies to organizations and leadership they state that “responsibility implies that organizations, as parts of society, have obligations to support the general health and wellbeing of society” (Seeger, Ulmer, 61).  Broderick’s compulsion to “not incite panic” is just one part of this equation; erring on the side of caution to avoid an Atlantis scenario in a city of nearly half a million people would be another important obligation to meet with regards to health and wellbeing. Seeger and Ulmer go on to state that “responsibility is associated not only with good management but also with effective management” and that “managerial responsibility means being responsible not only to one’s self, accepting one’s limitations, but also to others, accepting their limitations and perspectives” (Seeger, Ulmer, 61).  Broderick had never faced a hurricane barreling towards a city under sea level. Flooding, in this instance, is not just “typical hurricane background stuff” but a potential sign of failed levees. His insistence that important information would have been communicated via telephone rather than email resulted in around 700 emails left unopened in the early days of Katrina (Cooper, Block, wsj.com). Failed phone lines and down towers meant that WiFi was often the more reliable means of communication. Both instances point to Broderick’s inability to identify or accept his own limitations: his ignorance of the unique situation and an antiquated view of communication media.

The study continues by discussing the importance of remaining informed and maintaining an openness to signs of problems, both of which Broderick failed to do on some level. “A fundamental characteristic of responsible organizational leadership involves maintaining a close connection to and awareness of operations through monitoring” (Seeger, Ulmer, 65).  Nearly 700 unopened emails most definitely points to a lack of monitoring the situation and a quick review of the  timeline  also questions his ability to truly monitor the situation. It seems that by nightfall on that dreaded Monday,  the HSOC received “nearly a dozen definitive reports that the city’s flood-control system had been breached and eight other reports suggesting as much” yet Broderick chose to rely on information from two rather removed sources: CNN and the Washington office of the Army Corps of Engineers (Cooper, Block, wsj.com). It should be noted that the Army Corps of Engineers has a rather large New Orleans office where all but nine of the 1,000 employees were evacuated before the storm hit: another piece of information that should have been considered. These instances tie in with maintaining an openness to signs of problems. Cooper and Block state:

“A specific way in which the obligation to be informed is manifest concerns being open to bad news…leaders are obligated to hear and attend to dissent and criticism in part because these messages may signal threats or problems that logically should be heeded…In general, however, most organizations find warnings difficult to process and disruptive to established beliefs about risk and threat” (Cooper, Block, 66).

Broderick wanted to avoid a panic and his previous experience taught him that early reports were often exaggerated. He was determined to find a “ground truth.” All of these things are noble goals but how could a report from CNN (based in Atlanta) and the Washington Army Corps of Engineers know more about what was going on at the ground level than eye-witness reports? Because the bad news conflicted with Broderick’s beliefs about early reports and maintaining a sense of calm in a crisis. His prior experience with hurricanes further supported his belief that the early reports of flooding were likely exaggerated. One might assume that it is better to be safe than sorry with reports of levee breaches, but Broderick likely believed, based on his previous experience, that the reports were not worth considering.

Student Analysis of the Outcome.

The evidence presented in this case does support Campbell’s et al. research. Broderick’s decision making process was impacted by his previous experiences, but isn’t that exactly why people are promoted into leadership roles? Leaders are expected to have prior experiences to draw from, even if these prior experiences serve as an Achilles’ heel. Where Broderick failed was in his inability to recognize and/or accept his limitations.  He was unaware that his experiences did not directly apply to the situation at hand. He had never faced a hurricane bearing down on a city below sea level. He dismissed email as a form of direct communication in a crisis. He ignored early reports because his past experience supported that decision. Did he think himself infallible? Celebrated leaders with decades of experience hate to face their own career mortality. None of us want to.

In addition, the military supports more of a transactional form of leadership (rewards and punishments). This transactional leadership style may have prevented Brigadier General Matthew Broderick’s subordinates from question his bad decision. A more transformational approach to leadership, where ideas and opinions are more likely to be shared, would support and encourage the types of safeguards Campbell and his research team have recommended. It seems that these safeguards may offer the best protection against decision bias.

One troubling connection that is hard to ignore in Broderick’s decision making process lies in the demographics of the areas that reported flooding and early levee breaches. The part of the city most affected by early flooding and most devastated by Hurricane Katrina was the Eastern part of the city: the area situated east of the Industrial Canal and north of the Industrial Waterway (O’Brien, Amin, america.aljazeera.com). This collection of neighborhoods was already ravaged by the effects of urban decay and home to prominent African American and Vietnamese neighborhoods of Read Blvd East and Village de L’Est. The French Quarter and surrounding neighborhoods, by contrast are thriving, tourist areas populated with affluent residents, mostly caucasian. Broderick chose to ignore reports of flooding in the east, instead basing his report, in part, on the televised celebration in the French Quarter. Seeger and Ulmer state that “a leader communicates strong messages to his employees about his values through actions” (Seeger, Ulmer, 64). The message communicated by his actions is not one of a leader concerned with the wellbeing of all. One hopes that demographics did not influence his decision making process but his actions could be interpreted otherwise.  

They say hindsight is 20/20. In the case of hurricane Katrina that could not be more true. No one was prepared for the devastation that a storm this size would cause to city located below sea level. At the end of the day, everyone makes mistakes, it is just that some mistakes have more severe consequences than others. Campbell et al., caution, “The reality is that important decisions made by intelligent, responsible people with the best information and intentions are sometimes hopelessly flawed” (Campbell et al., hbr.org).

Works Cited

Campbell, Andrew, Jo Whitehead, and Sydney Finkelstein. “Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions.” Harvard Business Review. N.p., Feb. 2009. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

Campbell, A., J. Whitehead, and S. Finkelstein. “Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions.” Journal of Direct, Data and Digital Marketing Practice, vol. 10, no. 4, 2009., pp. 381.

Cooper, Christopher, and Robert Block. “Behind the Katrina Imbroglio.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 27 July 2006. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

Fessler, Pam. “Ex-FEMA Chief Deflects Blame for Katrina Response.” NPR. NPR, 10 Feb. 2006. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

Finkelstein, Sydney, Jo Whitehead, and Andrew Campbell. “Think again: Why Good Leaders make Bad Decisions.” Business Strategy Review, vol. 20, no. 2, 2009., pp. 62-66doi:10.1111/j.1467-8616.2009.00601.x.

Garnett, J. L., & Kouzmin, A. (2007). Communicating throughout Katrina: Competing and complementary conceptual lenses on crisis communication. Public Administration Review, 67, 171-188. Retrieved from http://libproxy.umflint.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.libproxy.umflint.edu/docview/197180464?accountid=14584

“Hurricane Katrina: The Roles of U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency Leadership : Hearing before the Committee … 4.G 74/9:S.HRG.109-829.” HathiTrust. United States Senate, 10 Feb. 2007. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

Kromm, Chris. “Katrina: The Latest on the Failed Response.” Facing South. N.p., 07 Aug. 2006. Web. 29 Nov. 2016.

O’Brien, Soledad, and Sameen Amin. “Ten Years after Katrina, New Orleans’ Recovery Remains Uneven.” Aljazeera America. Al Jazeera America, LLC, 28 Aug. 2015. Web. 03 Dec. 2016.

Seeger, Matthew W., and Robert R. Ulmer. “Explaining Enron: Communication and Responsible Leadership.” Management Communication Quarterly 17.1 (2003): 58-84. Web.

“U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Hearing on the Leadership Roles of DHS and FEMA in Response to Hurricane Katrina.” washingtonpost.com, The Washington Post, 2006.


Photo Credit: http://valor.militarytimes.com/recipient.php?recipientid=48215