© 2008 Jonathan Bernstein
Estimated Readership: 17,000+
JUST A THOUGHT
Disasters teach us humility.
CRISIS MANAGER UNIVERSITY
The Hurricane Issue
By Jonathan Bernstein
This issue contains one feature article. Reader Alan Augustson sent me the article just a few days ago, and it's timeliness is inescapable. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina a Class 3 when it came ashore in Louisiana exposed many lessons that hadn't yet been learned about emergency preparedness. Three years later, as Alan points out in this impassioned opinion piece, many lessons STILL haven't been learned. You may or may not agree with everything that Alan says, which is directed at FEMA but, unless you're in denial, this item has lessons for all of us about personal responsibility, amongst other topics. I've inserted some editorial comments where I differ from or want to expand on his comments.
Beyond that, I'm posting a video commentary about disaster preparedness at http://bernsteincrisismanagement.blogspot.com, where I also anticipate engaging in ongoing written and video commentary as Hurricane Gustav bears down on and strikes the Gulf Coast. I very much welcome reader participation on the blog, to include your response to Alan's article.
Katrina: Three Years Later, The Lessons We Haven't Learned
By Alan Augustson, MPP
In late 2005, the worst-case scenario became reality for Americans living near the Gulf of Mexico: Katrina, the strongest hurricane ever to strike the Gulf Coast. Then it happened again. And again.
In all, three storms, each of which reached horrific "Category 5" status at some point, battered Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida in a span of less than three months. Three years later, some citizens and bureaucrats are still scratching their heads in bewilderment: how on Earth could everything have gone so badly?
The answers lie not just in the dysfunctions of government, but also in characteristics of all Americans chiefly, our steadfast refusal to learn from past mistakes, our own or others'. Now, some people who weren't even in the arena, including major political candidates on both left and right, seem to believe that dissolving FEMA will somehow correct these shortcomings.
They seem to forget that this was tried already the Bush Administration gutted the Agency in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001. The loss of FEMA's budget and best brains directly contributed to the Katrina tragedy. Proposing to repeat the same mistake, even more egregiously, displays the same tragic ignorance regarding what FEMA is and does that echoed throughout the Gulf in 2005.
If anyone is left at 500 C Street by the time this article sees print, here are a handful of simple and (one would have thought) obvious points that need to be considered by everyone, from Cabinet level to the field operatives to the average American citizen, because they're going to come up again:
1. Preparedness costs money.
Response, in the absence of preparedness, costs a lot more money. Untold billions have been spent, with very little to show for it, in the aftermath of Katrina, Rita and Wilma. The spending is nowhere near done; many amongst the displaced populations of the Gulf aren't even thinking about returning yet. Would it have cost so much to upgrade the Louisiana levees, say, to something approaching the dike systems in the Netherlands? Or to establish and provision proper local sheltering, or to retain the senior staffers who had to be rehired, as contractors at astronomical rates, after the fact? Certainly not. We Americans have an almost pathological hatred of taxation, and won't willingly pay for anything that we ourselves don't need right now. But natural disasters are known quantities they will happen, somewhere, every year; the annual Federal budget needs to allow for it.
2. Some jobs should be left to the experts.
We wouldn't appoint a civilian CEO to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or a non-lawyer to the Attorney General's office. Likewise, agencies such as FEMA need to be headed by professional, experienced, full-time emergency management professionals. Furthermore, these experts need at least a small degree of protection from the passions and prejudices of both politicians and public. Mike "Heckuva Job" Brown knew more than he let on: it's now known that he had advanced intelligence prior to landfall, and that he pleaded for money, personnel, and authorization to act. But in the end, he was a good political soldier who willingly played the stooge, deflecting the blame from an incompetent, officious and callous administration.
3. Do your homework. But don't expect anyone else to.
It was not only knowable, but known ask Dr. Ivor van Heerden at LSU that a direct hit from a Cat-4 hurricane would reduce Orleans Parish to a ten-foot-deep toxic lake, and that such a strike would happen, sooner or later. It was known U.S. Census Data showed that a huge segment of the population was elderly, disabled, and/or living below the poverty level. These people had no private transportation and no place to go; their proverbial Plan-A was the Louisiana Superdome, which was clearly intended as a "shelter of last resort". It was known that neither New Orleans nor the State of Louisiana had a response plan, or any emergency-management budget to speak of. The problem is, the people who knew these things couldn't get the time of day from anyone with authority to help fix the problems.
4. Don't count on awareness to spur action.
Everything from misinterpretations of the laws of probability, to base superstition, to dare I say it? The culture of dependency? kept city, state and federal authorities alike from developing a disaster plan. Even many of the victims, who could have made their own provisions, chose not to. At least some of the people filling the shelters to the rafters, or lining up for supplies, had an alternative and wouldn't exercise it.
Editor's note: see How Much Pain Does It Take.
5. Don't expect gratitude.
The FEMA I knew was a group of people working without sleep, without food, without proper support, and without any hope of progress; all out of sheer altruism. They had no power, working phones, or a safe place to sleep between shifts for many days. They worked sick; they worked injured; they worked nights and weekends and holidays. The Keystone Kops that the media continue to portray didn't exist: they were merely hogtied by jurisdictional overlap, or Congressional gridlock, or Cabinet incompetence, or broken infrastructure and supply lines. Of course, none of this would have mattered to Anderson Cooper. Or Spike Lee, for that matter.
6. The media are not your friends (since we're on that subject).
They love you when you triumph. But they love even more when you fail, especially if you fail catastrophically. The mass media, television most especially, are an advertising channel not just first and foremost, but for your purposes, only. The shots of bodies, floating in the water, will sell more cheeseburgers than a detailed explanation of why FEMA can't usurp state or local authority. As useful as they are for disseminating vital information, don't expect them to provide any. They may pitch in to rescue one family, but at least some of the money shots will be of someone they could have helped and didn't. They're not partners; they're parasites.
Editor's Note: As I said above, this is an opinion piece from someone whose professional experience with FEMA has left him pretty bitter. I understand and have heard similar feelings expressed by many of the author's fears. But I also know that it does no good to treat the media like the enemy. The best approach is to do everything we can, as public relations professionals, to (a) educate the media about the realities of our situation, good and bad and (b) provide easy-to-access and easy-to-understand background data and information from breaking situations. Nothing makes that easier to do than the Internet. A blog can be thrown up in minutes, but is best prepared in advance and kept "dark" until needed.
7. Anything you say or do could be a scandal in the making.
Every casual remark has the potential to be tomorrow's screaming-banner headline; every e-mail or Blackberry message should be treated as if it were public domain. Rolling up your sleeves to look busy? Having trouble finding a decent restaurant in a disaster area? Keep it to yourself! It'll be all the funnier in your memoirs, later on.
8. The National Response Plan is bunk. Rewrite it.
Terrorist attacks may be far more dramatic, but natural disasters are more understandable, more predictable, and far, far more frequent. The NRP ignores this for the most part, and concentrates principally on terrorist activity that can best be handled by local and regional law enforcement. However, in all fairness, the National Incident Management System still works. The reason it works is because it's modeled after the military general-staff system, a system that has held up for over a hundred years, created by people who understand the need to cooperate under life-and-death conditions.
9. A crisis situation is no time for territorialism.
When people are dying, or in danger thereof, communication is key. If you're on the same side, then act like it. Are there contractors who won't share information with each other? Fire 'em. Corps of Engineers staff won't talk to FEMA, Red Cross, or whomever? Whip 'em into shape. And the key positions? Fill them with people who know the task best, without respect to agency or place on the organizational chart. And have the agreements made, in advance, to provide inter-jurisdictional cooperation when it matters most.
10. Don't blow your response funding on R&D.
As with most of the items above, I witnessed this mistake first-hand at FEMA headquarters. With so many contractor agencies on site, the marketing people are bound to show up sooner or later. Attempts will be made to divert legitimate situational analysis and effort into the development of some new software program, which naturally must be created from scratch although there are myriad analogous off-the-shelf products. Don't buy into it: they're presenting the absence of their "solution" as the problem itself, one of the oldest logical fallacies on the books. If you bite, the project will start off merely gargantuan, and then grow into a black hole from which no cash escapes. It'll be millions going to programmers, marketers, and (worst) additional middle managers, rather than the purposes for which the money was intended. Resist. Make do with what you have until the crisis is effectively managed, and (if you still want it) ask for your software money in next year's budget. Then you can solicit competitive bids, and pay on a cost-plus or a fixed-price basis, rather than hemorrhaging cash while people are still stuck in public shelters.
Katrina alone was the worst natural disaster ever to hit the continental U.S., and no one had any right to expect things to run like clockwork. Knowing that the final decisions would be political ones, all anyone could do was to provide the best quality information, analysis, and recommendations possible and then let it go. Smugness, self-righteousness, and twenty-twenty hindsight are easy for those who aren't doing the actual work.
The problems at FEMA, for the most part, were not and are not organizational or functional; they are chiefly political. And while it may not be possible to completely separate politics from administration, there are some specific applications wherein the break needs to be as clean as possible.
Alan Augustson is a statistician and management analyst living in Chicago. He has worked with the National Opinion Research Center, the Government Finance Officers Association, the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, and as a consultant to FEMA. Currently he is running for the House of Representatives, for the Fifth Congressional District of Illinois. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
CRISIS MANAGER BUSINESS ANNOUNCEMENTS
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In addition to individual and business usage, the manual is now being required as a textbook at Seton Hall University, Grand Canyon University, and Singapore Management University, amongst others. It is available in both PDF and hard copy formats at www.thecrisismanager.com, with reseller arrangements available for collegiate bookstores.
Jonathan Bernstein also offers on-site media training worldwide, using this manual as the basis for training. Write to email@example.com.
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Disaster Prep 101
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ABOUT THE EDITOR & PUBLISHER
Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., www.bernsteincrisismanagement.com, a national crisis management public relations agency providing 24/7 access to crisis response professionals. The agency engages in the full spectrum of crisis management services: crisis prevention, response, planning & training. He has been in the public relations field since 1982, following five-year stints in both military intelligence and investigative reporting. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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