spea magazine

Speaking Out: Learning from Katrina—What Our Experts Say

Disastrous Management

Eugene B. McGregor Jr.

Eugene B. McGregor Jr. The cold logic of disaster management on the scale of Hurricane Katrina has involved assembling and activating the many concurrently operating systems and subsystems required to meet the challenges that ripped through Louisiana and Mississippi. Moreover, the cascade of the hurricane and failing levees required many responders to “work now and grieve later” in order to rescue the living, complete a mass evacuation of the helpless, and meet mission critical challenges that included rapidly collapsing power, water, and communication systems and predictable threats to human health, safety, and security. The totality of the onslaught dwarfed any possible private or nonprofit response and the power of any single level of government or government agency. The Katrina disaster was (and continues to be) project management on steroids.

Painful as the public revelations were about the ineptitude of would-be responders and the hard realities of America’s two-tier society, a public record now provides lessons galore, including the following:

Readiness is crucial: It does not diminish the magnificence of leaders who rose to the occasion to suggest that preparedness—the plans, training, and systems locked in place prior to disaster—drives the prospect for success. It is ironic that the greatest heroics are often most obvious when preparedness is inadequate and on-the-fly leadership is required.

Response is structural: The search for scapegoats should not deflect attention from the managerial wisdom that effective systems, rather than heroic ad hoc leadership, determine outcomes (see lesson #1). FEMA was founded in 1979 by the Carter administration, elevated to cabinet status in the Clinton administration, and then absorbed as an ancillary agency by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a newly created federal conglomerate designed to deal with terrorism threats.

Even light drilling through into the strategic planning verbiage of the www.dhs.gov Web site reveals that FEMA’s basic job is to “… focus on its historic and vital mission of response and recovery” (emphasis added). In short, FEMA is now a reaction agency, not a preparedness agency, and its “response and recovery” focus is reflected in its budget, staffing, organization design, work plans, and operating procedures, according to September 6, 2005’s Wall Street Journal.

Federalism can be dysfunctional: Complex intergovernmental decisions confront any exercise in disaster management. The public record reveals serious weaknesses in the city of New Orleans and its relationship with the state of Louisiana, as well as in the federal estimate of the emergency management capacity of state and local government.

Watch the critical path: Disaster management feeds on precise information. The informatics of command, control, and communication (C3) constitutes a critical path in the design and deployment of effective response systems and will take time to develop. Indeed, the C3 problems of the Katrina response are not greatly different from those revealed in the 9/11 disaster.

Notwithstanding documented failure, some things did work amazingly well. For example, the heroics of those who had themselves been wiped out and the robust systems of logistics wheeled into place in record time stand as important benchmarks. Further, backup systems quickly swung into action once the frontline response failures were obvious. Indeed, the leitmotif for rapid adaptation under pressure is nicely captured in a book, To a Young Jazz Musician, by Wynton Marsalis “…Swing is supreme coordination under the duress of time. Swing is democracy made manifest; it makes you constantly adjust. At any given time, what’s going to go on musically may not be to your liking. You have to know how too maintain your equilibrium and your balance, even if things are changing rapidly.…”

How appropriate it is that such “quintessentially American concepts” confronted their greatest challenge in a place that now presents a platform for the rapid learning inherent in both jazz and disaster management.

Eugene McGregor Jr. is a professor at SPEA, IUB. His teaching interests center on the interaction of public policy, organizational structure, and management practice. Special current research interests focus on the relationship between public education and economic development and the impact of information technology on the structure and management of public enterprise. Professor McGregor received a Ph.D. from Syracuse University in 1968.