Disaster management is a paradox: its very name implies that disasters can be managed. Despite this paradox being commonly recognized, current practices and ideology are puzzlingly resilient. In this paper we analyse plans and planning as the underlying basis of disaster management, showing it to be a co-production of ideology-practice. Using direct engagement with disaster managers, the findings expose tensions between the boundaries imposed by planning and the opinions of experienced experts. We show that the over-arching goal of disaster management – enacted through and by planning – remains oriented towards imposing control, which contradicts what the experts believe is needed. Drawing on recent analyses of insurgencies and special forces, we propose a co-system of disaster management attuned to catastrophes. Our proposal offers a pathway to replace ‘command and control’ with ‘command and chaos’, accepting reactive responses by local practitioners as a necessary and valuable component of disaster management in the context of catastrophe. We contend that command and chaos is an accurate description of disaster management and hope that recognizing and naming this circumstance will help practitioners and researchers justify approaches that do not conform to planning ideology-practice.