Archive for Sunday, August 27, 2006

Broader lessons from Katrina

August 27, 2006


America is in danger of learning the wrong lesson from Hurricane Katrina. One year ago, Hurricane Katrina showed Americans the ferocity of nature, and how vulnerable we are when our government is not prepared for a crisis. But while some are taking the anniversary of Katrina to catalog further what went wrong, we had better accept that good government is essential and start looking forward to getting things right.

The list of what went wrong is numerous, obvious, and is being amply recapped this summer by the media. Levees failed. Citizens were stranded without adequate supplies. Relief was unconscionably delayed. Resources were wasted.

For each of these failures, there is a clear, short-term lesson that government leaders had better understand. Levees require sound engineering, investment and upkeep. Advanced preparations need to be made to ensure the prompt delivery of relief supplies. More attention needs to be given to ensuring that those who need it most are being helped.

But we also believe the failures suggest some longer-term, more consequential, attitudinal lessons on the part of government and citizens that must be learned if we are to do better in the decades ahead. Here are five of those key lessons:

1. Good results require good people. It's not by chance that the best performing agencies often are the ones rated as the best places to work. The greatest asset of any organization is the ability and passion of its people. Just like the private sector, our government must attract quality people to its ranks by making government a place where public servants are well-led, well-trained, empowered and rewarded for their service. The 9/11 Commission made this rather unglamorous point adamantly in its report: "The quality of the people is more important that the quality of the wiring diagrams." With 44 percent of federal employees eligible to retire by 2010, it's critical that we attract the best and brightest to federal service so we are ready for what the future holds.

2. Coordination matters. The fact is the next disaster will almost certainly require resources and skills that come from many places - agencies within federal, state and local governments, nonprofits, faith-based organizations and the private sector. Right now, too many of these organizations are "siloed" - hard to tap into or unable to communicate with one another. The federal government must play the role of coordinator as well as responder in a crisis. This means making coordination a priority from the top down.

3: A long-term perspective is necessary. A hallmark of crisis planning is the short-term perspective. At best, planners are often "fighting the last war." The challenges facing us today require imagination and a long-range perspective. Solutions like hiring good people, moving resources and investing in technology may not pay dividends for a decade. But they will be worth it. For a start, agencies should appoint a chief management officer, a civil servant hired because of expertise, to maintain this long perspective.

4. There is no cheap fix. The bad news is that a new approach requires time, financial resources and intellectual capital today. The good news is that it saves money and lives over the long term. The damage to a region like the Gulf Coast is almost incalculable, but taxpayers often bristle when told billions may be needed for some mundane sounding necessity like levees and restoring the wetlands. If we don't learn that lesson now, we are doomed to repeat it.

5. Understand and build upon the successes. We must not forget that there were successes during Katrina too, and we must learn from them. Coast Guard employees flew thousands of missions on short rest and with little guidance from headquarters, saving hundreds of lives. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey rushed into New Orleans and helped to evacuate hundreds before putting their unique training to use to guide other rescuers through the flooded streets. In each of these stories, federal employees performed well because they were well-trained and they were empowered to innovate and act in a crisis. We need to create the same conditions in every agency of the federal government.

Katrina unveiled a myriad of sad realities and challenges for our country. The right lesson, however, is not to denounce government as doomed to fail. Just the opposite. Katrina is proof of the urgent need for effective government. Citizens and our leaders fail to learn that lesson at our peril.

James Lee Witt is the CEO of James Lee Witt Associates, a public safety and crisis management consulting firm in Washington, D.C. He served as FEMA director from 1993 to 2001. Max Stier is the president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service in Washington, D.C. (


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