US crisis planning: turning Cat. 4 storms into Cat. 10 catastrophes

The magnitude of the tragedy in New Orleans is just off the charts – really, it’s pretty much past my ability to fathom. And at the moment I don’t have any brilliant ideas about how to solve the city’s exploding crisis other than send money, send troops, send food, send everything. Which I guess is finally happening – Congress just authorized $10.5B in Federal aid, according to the scroll on the morning ABC happy news.

Now, I know there wasn’t much that the government could have done to prevent Katrina (well, aside from the fact that we’ve been warned for years about the environmental implications of fossil fuel use and climate change global warming, that is, but let’s save that argument for another day), but there was something it could have done to plan for Katrina and its aftermath. If you pay any attention at all to the news you’ve seen several stories in recent days that noted how the N.O./Category 5 scenario has long scared the pants off of people, so the fact that we weren’t prepared for what’s happened in the last three or four days is almost criminal.

Why weren’t we prepared, though, and how do we make sure we are prepared next time? Because there’s going to be a next time. You don’t know where the next time will be, but it is a certainty that in the coming years a badass Category 5 is going to bust a major American coastal city right in the mouth.

Well, we know that part of the problem is our leadership. President Bush said yesterday that, “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees” (more on this). Which is remarkable, since pretty much anybody who watched the news at all in the day or so leading up to landfall was well aware of the risk a big storm posed to the levees – TV reporters on the ground and in the studio talked about it repeatedly.

But the problem is bigger than one dimwitted chief executive. Ultimately, we’re now paying the price for our recent downsizing of FEMA, a manifestation of a much larger national psychosis relating to terror. The article linked here connects a lot of the dots, but in essence we have arrayed our resources and energies in such a way as to say that the only disasters we’re going to worry about are extremist and Muslim in nature. (Maybe we could get the government’s attention by giving storms Arabic names – “Katrina” didn’t scare our current crops of leaders, but maybe news that Hurricane Mohammed was bearing down on the Big Easy would mobilize the machinery. Or maybe we could declare God a terrorist nation? [sigh])

I hope that the stupidity of such a policy is now obvious enough that I don’t need to elaborate on it.

The adage that crisis planners use goes something like this: to fail to plan is to plan to fail, and I hammered this message home to my grad students in the PR class I taught this summer. We devoted one weekend to a crisis planning seminar and one of their major projects was a crisis plan for their own organizations (school, place of work, etc.) In that project, they had to identify as many possible crises as they could, assess the probability of the event happening, and evaluate the severity of the crisis along four criteria (time sensitivity, range of response options, etc.) Then they had to prioritize events and top-line recommended responses in a report they could present to the organization’s leadership. This is an involved process when you’re actually working it for something as massive as the US government, but conceptually it’s not that complicated. However, it does require you to pull all the best information together and make intelligent decisions about it.

Katrina was a Cat. 4 storm when it hit shore, and the government’s failure to adequately plan for such an event turned it into a Cat. 10 catastrophe the like of which we’ve never really seen before. So what should we do to avoid repeats?

Well, we now have a template, don’t we? We now have a pretty firm idea of what can happen in situation X. We need to start by understanding that terrorism isn’t the only thing that can go wrong and begin pumping some steroids into FEMA. Then we need to develop worst-case scenarios for every Southeastern coastal city, starting with Wilmington, NC and working down and around the coast all the way to Brownsville. We need to scheme for supplies, shelter, infrastructural issues, public health, crime and safety, you name it.

Then we need to fund the plan and make sure an adequate response exists somewhere other than in a binder in a mid-level manager’s office.

We may not have any control over the category of the storm hitting the beach, but we damned sure do have something to say about whether our preparedness makes things better or worse.

[THX: catwhite, zarq, and Dr. Will Bower of the Pit’s Atlanta Desk.]



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