When Tragedy Strikes: Katrina a Costly Lesson in Crisis Planning

Peter TerHorst
 


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Crisis planners take note: there are significant lessons to be learned from the tragedy wrought by Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Painful lessons that, morethan four years after the anniversary of 9-11, we still have not learned.

First and foremost is the need to fix the problem and provide care for the hundreds of thousands of people displaced and devastated by the wind and water damage. Next up is the need for a plan that anticipates the magnitude of this kind of calamity. And finally, we should never assume that prior planning is sufficient to prepare us for the disasters we seek to mitigate.

Watching the news and listening to the various responsible parties point the finger at each other reminds me of the time when, after an argument with my wife, we found our three-year old son walking around the house saying, “It’s not my fault, it’s your fault. It’s not my fault, it’s your fault. " What lessons do we teach our children and each other when we shirk the responsibility that comes with the job of being a parent? An adult? A leader?

We are awfully able at assigning blame after the fact and pathetically poor at preparing for the inevitable crises that await all of us. I suppose it has something to do with control and our need to exert it in the realm of our daily lives. When we believe we have control, life somehow seems more manageable and predictable. Trouble is, the power to control our fate is not in our hands. What we do have is the ability to manage the variables that constitute life as we know it. When we confuse our ability to manage with our ability to control, disappointment –- even catastrophe –- is inevitable.

If we are to be effective crisis planners, we must first play the “What if?" game -– what is the worst thing that could happen? In New Orleans, this question has been asked and answered repeatedly. Just last year, FEMA participated in a mock exercise they labeled Hurricane Pam and the predictions were eerily similar to what we are seeing on our television sets today. So what went wrong?

The five “Ps". Poor planning produces poor performance. The resources needed to prepare for the predicted devastation – money, materials, time and manpower – were not sufficiently allocated. At every level, the managers sidestepped their responsibility to be managers and turned over their authority to the controllers. As in, don’t worry about the details, everything’s under control.

Perhaps the American institution best-prepared for a crisis is our military. After all, that is its reason to exist, defending Americans and our interests when all else fails. While some argue that events leading up to 9-11 could have been anticipated, few can question our country’s military cability to respond in the immediate aftermath. Yet the consequences of Hurricane Katrina show us that our civil agencies were woefully unprepared for the inevitable. It’s like the man who marches into the woods with a shotgun to defend his property, yet succumbs to a heart attack from a lifelong diet of junk food.

The cost of being unprepared -– not just in dollars, but in human life -– is staggering and incalculable. When it comes to assigning blame, it appears our elected officials, Democrat and Republican alike, are the guilty parties. Hoping beyond hope that such a tragedy would not occur on their watch, they led us all whistling through the graveyard. If such a collapse befell a corporation, the shareholders would toss the officers and board members out on the sidewalk. Let’s hope the American voters have the constitutional strength to do the same with their politicians.

Crisis planning is not easy and never perfect, which is why many people, businesses and institutions fail to do it. Yes, it takes time and energy away from managing our day-to-day activities. And it cannot be reduced to an exercise that is documented and put on the shelf. It is an ongoing, organic process that must adapt to ever-changing variables. If we fail to plan for a crisis, we will ultimately fail anyway. We need to start now. In our lives, our businesses, and our country.

Peter terHorst is president of SymPoint Communications. For more information, visit http://www.sympoint.com

© 2005 SymPoint Communications. All rights reserved. You are free to use this material in whole or in part in print, on a web site or in an email newsletter, as long as you include a complete attribution, including a live web site link. Please notify me where the material will appear.

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