Classic sociological theory can be used to interpret the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in the United States on 29 August 2005. The delayed and ineffective response to the storm and the subsequent failure of the levees become more understandable when one considers the latent goals of social control in disaster recovery. Constructing the survivors as suspect or criminal and conceptualising the impacts of the disaster as individual problems occurred in order to justify the emphasis on controlling the survivors of Katrina rather than on assisting them. Parallels are drawn here between the disaster response featuring social control efforts and a recent paradigmatic shift in criminal justice from justice to ‘risk management’. Recognition of the implicit aims of the inadequate disaster response provides a more complete explanation of why post-Katrina efforts failed to achieve the manifest goals of response and recovery. The conclusion suggests ways to ensure more equitable and just disaster responses.