Purpose: This study seeks to identify the factors that made Hurricane Katrina the worst disaster in American history. Although the inefficiency of the centralized government is often cited as the primary reason for failure in disaster mitigation and recovery, more fundamental reasons are left unexplored. Design/methodology/approach: This study points out that comparative case analysis is inadequate to substantiate the claim that private actors are better responders to disaster than public agents. Instead, it takes a single case study approach of hurricane response in New Orleans. This method allows for two things: first, extending the temporal scope helps to understand that disaster management is not a single event but a cumulative result of the past responses. Second, one can trace the interplay between public and private agents rather than their separate reactions. Findings: A series of legal conditions within the federalist framework have discouraged effective disaster management by the federal government. Using both legal and extralegal means, local actors tried to avoid the federal government's involvement in land use and building control that may prohibit local economic activities. Instead, the federal government was pressured into providing structural protection such as levee construction, which is costly yet ineffective in preventing a mega-disaster like Hurricane Katrina. Originality/value of paper: This study warrants caution in conducting a comparative case analysis in evaluating the role of the federal government in disaster response and recovery. By conducting an in-depth case study of New Orleans hurricane response over the past 50 years, it reveals that the current government failure stems from structural and legal conditions rather than bureaucratic inefficiency.