Katrina’s Neglected Lesson

It's the people, not just policies, that make a disaster plan work.

An agency's resilience in the face of catastrophe depends on fundamental human and organizational qualities. Having the right policies and procedures is only half the battle.

For those who endured the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005, the summer of 2006 was both a reprieve and a much needed opportunity to continue preparing for the inevitable next disaster, undisturbed by evacuations and additional destruction. Checklists have been updated, chains of command clarified, training conducted and equipment stockpiled.

Many of those striving to enhance their readiness have not yet experienced catastrophe firsthand, but wisely recognize its potential to strike anywhere. They, especially, need to hear from those who have learned the hard way how best to prepare their organizations, and themselves, to not only survive but to thrive after a Katrina-like event.

When things go wrong, we naturally gravitate toward solutions that appear achievable in the relatively short term. Much post-Katrina attention has focused on what are essentially technical questions: Who's in charge; where do the pieces fit together; how are resources and services acquired and accountability maintained; what should the National Response Plan say; how do we make our telecommunications systems more resilient.

Getting these structural issues right is absolutely necessary. But addressing them alone is not enough. Katrina's neglected lesson is that to prepare for the next catastrophe, we must direct equal attention to leadership and the human element, which often have more influence on organizational outcomes.

Some public and private organizations, though virtually cut off from contact with their chains of command and support and unable to conduct business using customary or even safe procedures, were nonetheless able to recognize what needed doing, and then adapt, innovate and perform at a high level. How? These organizations had set the conditions that enable leaders to emerge spontaneously from the workforce wherever they are needed as crises unfold. These conditions include:

  • Clear objectives: Leaders must clearly convey organizational priorities before disaster strikes. There will be little time-and possibly no communications capability-to pass on instructions in the chaos that reigns afterward. Clear, well-understood objectives ensure that subordinates plan and prepare thoroughly for crises, and are then able to see and navigate around the many obstacles that arise and could otherwise cause them to falter in their response.
  • Flexibility: Experienced first responders know that in a crisis, "the plan" is only a starting point. It's impossible to anticipate every contingency. It's more important to be capable of adapting and adjusting rapidly to evolving situations using the plan as a guide. Doing so on scene requires insight, confidence and initiative. Insight comes more readily to those in learning organizations where plans and goals are developed collaboratively, members are expected to be alert for new threats and opportunities, and internal communications are strong. Insight is less likely to be achieved in rigid, hierarchical organizations whose members have no expectation of being able to initiate change in response to events.

Confidence comes from technical competence, practice, experience and a supportive, forward-leaning and risk- tolerant leadership climate. Subordinates who know their leaders "have their backs" will take action and do the right thing, even if it means going out on a limb and breaking some rules, in support of established priorities.

Initiative arises not only from innate individual qualities, but can be developed over time, as a result of being encouraged and empowered to take chances, innovate and learn from mistakes. No one who has been relentlessly micromanaged will suddenly become a proactive, out-of-the-box thinker in a crisis-and it's both unfair and unrealistic to expect otherwise.

In the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe, it's not organizational charts but organizational culture that distinguishes those who get to work from those who stand reeling from the blow. Tens of thousands of Katrina survivors were rescued because legions of Coast Guard, National Guard, local and other first responders found themselves with more responsibility and less oversight than they had ever had before, and rose to the occasion.

Building and sustaining a winning organizational culture is not glamorous, and neither easy nor easily measured. But a leader has no more important responsibility. How will your organization perform if it finds itself at the center of a catastrophe?

Capt. Bruce C. Jones, now commander of Coast Guard Sector Lake Michigan, led air rescue operations during hurricanes Katrina and Rita as commander of Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans. The views expressed are his own and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the U.S. Coast Guard or its commandant.

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