What are the Lessons of New Orleans?

The response by public officials to the Hurricane Katrina disaster will be analyzed for years. Can lessons learned in the private sector instruct us in minimizing the suffering and damage from inevitable future calamities?
by James Heskett

Summing Up

Management is a complex process. Good plans executed poorly may be worse than poor plans executed well. This is never truer than at times of disaster, in which plans made from afar have to be implemented by those on the scene first, often with limited preparation. If public and private organizations fail to learn from what happened in New Orleans, that may be the ultimate tragedy of a series of events that evoked feelings ranging from anger to embarrassment from the largest group of respondents to any of these columns thus far.

Among the lessons learned from New Orleans, according to Josie Graham, were these summed up in three words: "Plan, communicate, and execute . . . do not assume. We all know what happens when we assume." Beverly Withers observed that "those within private organizations did far better than those in the public system." Katherine Lawrence developed that further in commenting, ". . . Some people fell off the radar because they weren't part of ‘the plan' . . . Someone forgot to do the return-on-investment, and we as a nation will now pay a pretty price, not only monetarily but also emotionally." Gail Reichert commented: "Perhaps there's too much policy and procedure in place and not enough thinking." For David Brewster, lessons included the "failure of strategic planning to consider the small, frontline detail . . . a matter of getting close enough to the micro-detail to be able to plan with simple, practical ends in mind." Dennis Crane added that "true leadership does make a difference." Related to this was Yuko Nakanishi's observation that "any ambiguity in terms of responsibilities . . . must be eliminated ASAP."

Responses that these lessons suggested ranged from study to action. Andrew Williamson sounded a common call for a "blue ribbon committee similar to the 9/11 Commission to study all the sources of the problems that contributed to this disaster." Margaret O'Keeffe suggested that "the expertise should come from relief organizations like the Red Cross. They should be listened to for counsel in scenario planning before the next natural nightmare hits. . . ." Nikhil Zaveri proposed that ". . . there should be training and development of citizens by the government, involving the corporate world in the entire process, so that citizens could meet these kinds of calamities with ease and cool minds." Eric Schmidt echoed this call to action in commenting that "readiness is only achieved through practice." E. Hassen observed that "events cannot be predicted with a long lead time. Every organization needs to be more flexible, more modular, more adaptable." As for staffing, Paul Jackson recommended: "Get rid of bureaucratic leaders and put in their place entrepreneurs, and the problems we saw won't happen in the future."

If these are some of the lessons, how good is the learning process going forward? Who should take the lead in the teaching—that is, identifying best practices in the public and private sectors and making sure that they are disseminated and acted upon? Rather than putting primary emphasis on the placement of blame, can the studies resulting from the disaster be important contributors to the learning process? If so, what will have to happen? What do you think?

Original Article

There will be an endless number of post-mortems concerning the tragedies that befell the residents of New Orleans last week. More important are the actions, if any, which may result from them. In this regard, can lessons learned in the private sector be brought to bear in minimizing the suffering and damage from inevitable future calamities?

Many personal experiences come to mind in thinking about this question. The first was my involvement three years ago in the reenactment of a plane crash at a major U.S. airline that has never suffered an accident-related passenger fatality. Executives were assigned to "battle stations." A command post was established. Along with the CEO, teams were designated to be flown to the crash site within hours after the tragedy to make necessary arrangements with the next-of-kin of the simulated victims. This was not a one-time exercise; it is carried out periodically. Ironically, the mythical crash had occurred at the New Orleans International Airport.

Another was a successful effort to tie the radio communication system of a private security company, of which I was a director, to that of the New York City Police Department. A direct result has been a number of arrests by the NYPD of criminals fleeing buildings guarded by the private security firm. Contrast this with reports of the initial reluctance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to evacuate certain hospitals in New Orleans because they were private.

Many large retailing organizations with facilities on the Gulf Coast made extensive preparations in advance of the incoming hurricane. Only hours after the storm had receded, all but a handful of employees had been contacted and offered financial as well as other forms of assistance.

Clearly, there are significant differences between the challenges facing private firms and public agencies at times of disasters. Employees are easier to track and help than other citizens, some of whom may be unemployed. The magnitude of the responsibility is incomparable. For example, the repair and maintenance of levees is a task requiring long-term vision and effort difficult to muster in a political environment in which deferred maintenance is an easy and invisible solution to budget problems for elected politicians with limited terms. (The irony of this is that the average tenure of the CEO of a large company today is shorter than that of the typical U.S. president.)

The real tragedy will be if we learn nothing from New Orleans that leads to effective action. But just what should these lessons be? And what actions should result from them? In this case, can the public sector take some of its cues from private organizations? And what should these be? What do you think?

    • John Wilson
    • Assistant Area Commander/Divisional Officer, Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service

    Please allow a non-U.S. resident and emergency services professional to make some very personal observations.

    Professor Heskett is of course entitled to reflect on the lessons of New Orleans, but I think he has been too selective: If the private sector was as exemplary as he suggests, why was the [local] energy sector almost destroyed by little or no reserves or spare capacity?

    The U.S. system of making political appointments can seriously compromise organizations like FEMA—which is also made to feel like the "poor cousin" when Homeland Security is given the lead in responding to what was not a terrorist-related but natural disaster.

    Whilst the military can bring massive resources to bear and are generally well-disciplined and professional, they are not civil forces, and it is perhaps unrealistic to expect them to demonstrate the more subtle, compassionate traits you tend to see from the civil emergency responders.

    Everyone ought to know that civil emergency services are always "horizon-scanning" to see if there are better ways of dealing with disaster, and that includes how the private sector does things.

    That is quite distinct from giving the private sector executive control over emergency planning and response. Sadly, altruism and shareholder value rarely make good bedfellows because of the latter's narrow, short-term vision.

    • G. B. Banjara
    • Advisor, GTZ/Nepal

    Lessons from Katrina:

    Disaster can strike anywhere, anytime, to anyone. Even the most powerful and prosperous nation on earth cannot save itself from the mighty wrath of nature.

    Be humble to nature. Respect humanity. Plan for the long term. Spend more on science and technology to enhance the capability to avert and manage natural disasters.

    • David Brewster
    • Principal, Business Simplification (Australia)

    A significant issue here seems to be the failure of strategic planning to consider the small, frontline detail.

    Clearly, there was lots of preliminary planning for a disaster such as this. But I wonder how often those strategists, as they gathered around their whiteboards, actually put themselves in the shoes of a typical individual on the ground.

    When we fail to keep asking questions like "What will Joe Bloggs do/think/need when his house is inundated?" or "Exactly how will Betty Bloggs evacuate when she has no car, money, or place to go?" we risk obscuring these critical details in strategic complexity.

    The difference isn't a matter of public versus private: It's a matter of getting close enough to the micro-detail to be able to plan with simple, practical ends in mind.

    • Josie Graham
    • Consultant, Strategic Advantages

    The lesson here is summed up in three words: plan, communicate, and execute. In the wake of Katrina it has become blatantly clear that not only is it important to have a plan in place, it is critical and essential to communicate that plan clearly and specifically to all those who are needed to execute on the plan.

    Do not assume. We all know what happens when we assume.

    • Katherine Lawrence (HBS MBA '76)
    • COO, Ping Vision

    Business tends to maximize its available resources on a minimum set of objects. Government distributes its limited resources over a broad range of objectives.

    Prior to HBS, I spent several years in manufacturing at one of the world's largest chemical firms, and disaster drills and disaster preparedness was part of our responsibility. I chaired the site's Disaster Control Committee, so I empathize with how industry can take a proactive stand. As on-site managers, our main concern was to contain a disaster and prevent the loss of life. This meant localizing damage: shutting down processes, securing tanks that might rupture, moving people to safety if there was a threat of toxic release or accidental detonation, and sending crews in to neutralize potential hazards.

    In case of disaster, as Area First Aid Warden, my immediate responsibility was to get a head count and render what aid I could until help arrived. Always, help was on the way. Every equation had that in it. Yet, I still get a queasy feeling, remembering in memory the great steam whistle's mournful dirge tolling out the disaster call.

    These drills were on a plant of 500 workers who could call in assistance from the local community. What if it is 500,000 people and is just one city in a large region that is also hit? What happens when the call for help goes unanswered? What if no one comes to do a head count, and there is no Area First Aid Warden to find out if you are alive or dead or MIA?

    The tragedy of New Orleans is that no one came. Industry protects its assets and knows where its people are: That's part of staff management, disaster or not. But if someone is unemployed, old, sick, or otherwise disenfranchised, who comes to get them? Do they have visibility? Who has written the evacuation plan to help those most in need? Who can enforce it? Who will enforce a city-wide disaster drill every six months? On site we marched the workers out the front gate, hopefully to safety. How can a city of a half million free citizens be made to do that? And are the city limits the realistic perimeter?

    But there is a deeper lesson and that is one of investment to prevent disasters in the first place. A large firm is well aware of the human capital and material assets within the perimeters of its fences. It does not take long for the finance committee to run a return-on-investment analysis of operating safely or know that safeguards are part of the cost of doing business, and that industry has a moral responsibility to those who work on-site. There was a saying at the chemical firm: "You are safer inside the plant gates than outside."

    The lesson of the New Orleans disaster is that some people fell off the radar because they weren't part of "the plan."

    Someone forgot to do the return-on-investment, and we as a nation will now pay a pretty price, not only monetarily but also emotionally. This has driven home an important lesson that as a people I pray we don't soon forget.

    • Nikhil Zaveri, PhD
    • Principal, SEMCOM Institute (India)

    A major area for corporate growth is training and development to make human resources capable and competent enough to create as well as corner the opportunities for sustainable, profitable growth. Likewise, I feel there should be training and development of citizens by the government, involving the corporate world in the entire process, so that citizens could meet these kinds of calamities with ease and cool minds. The areas of training and development may be positive thinking in times of uncertainty, attitude-building for challenging times, "giving the best of me" in times of crisis, extending a helping hand to others, and so on.

    I personally feel we lack proper upbringing of citizens. If government concentrates on these aspects, I am sure that half of all problems will be resolved as soon as they arise.

    • Anonymous

    Hurricane Katrina offered me three lessons. First, just as managers have the responsibility to have a sense about the vulnerabilities of their team members, so too a community (or city or state) must have a special sense about its most vulnerable citizens. Having and cultivating that sense gives the leader a way to predict options with greater confidence and success.

    Katrina also taught me about the predictable range of behavior and its implications. By probing candidly about the predictable and reasonable ranges of behavior for citizens (vulnerable and not vulnerable), city employees, and outside actors, conflict and opportunity would have been clearer far earlier.

    Finally, I learned about leadership communication. Nagin, Blanco, and Bush all failed to secure the useful and inspirational high ground, even after days of messaging. Each morning, the leader confronts a day of opportunity and a way to take people forward. Each day is precious not only for what a team can accomplish but also for how a team can respond and stretch in the face of the leader's call for excellence.

    • Anonymous

    Response to this disaster is yet the latest example of colossal mismanagement and blundering that occurs at the highest levels of government as well as at the largest business concerns. Stifling bureaucracy, incompetence, poor planning, light-touch management, inadequate budgets—they are all represented. What a recipe for disaster. It's simply too bad that there is no real way to punish those in high office who are clearly guilty of gross non-performance. There should be serious consequences particularly if loss of life occurs. But there isn't. If replaced, whether in government or in business, they will just move on to some other well-paying job, while the ones who have been hurt are left to find some way to go on.

    • Margaret O'Keeffe
    • Director, O'Really Ltd., London

    Scenario planning has been used in countless organizations for dire marketing situations but not so much for devastating human conditions that drastically affect entire communities. Natural disasters have been with us for quite some time now. Private organizations are simply not equipped for disaster on a massive scale. National government and other friendly nations are, because this is like a war. Katrina has left and the result is not unlike the ravages of a full-on assault. Armies should be prepared to sustain and maintain order as well as attack. Isn't that what military defense should be about?

    If I had to risk getting shot at to get food to survive, I'd probably acquire a gun as well. Instead of shooting bullets at gangs attacking the police, how about shooting tear gas followed by dropping food and water? I doubt the local hooligans have gas masks. The United States appears to orchestrate the art of quelling riots quite well in other countries; so why not use some aspects of its foreign policy in America for a change?

    The expertise should come from relief organizations like the Red Cross. They should be listened to for counsel in scenario planning before the next natural nightmare hits, not as a panacea for feel-good donations in its aftermath.

    • Gail Reichert
    • Director, Leader's Edge Ltd

    What are our lessons? Perhaps there's too much policy and procedure in place and not enough thinking. Were people so bogged down in the details of the policy that they forgot to implement the plan? How true is it that the federal authorities were waiting for a request to come from the local authorities before sending help? It's like asking a drowning person to swim to shore to get help! From half a world away, it seemed obvious that what should have been happening wasn't happening. Surely there was someone who could have said, "To hell with the plan/policy/procedure (or whatever it was they were waiting for), I've got to take a chance, take a risk, do the right thing."

    • Ron Korzeniowski, Jr.
    • Assistant Pastor, Church of the Resurrection

    I think one lesson for leaders is to think more in terms of possibility than probability. If something is possible, it may be probable. Too often, I've been aware that something could happen, but ignored it because it wasn't statistically threatening. Yet. Once it was, it was too late.

    • Meenal Dandavate
    • Commercial Relationship Manager, HSBC

    Disaster planning is a key element for any organization to reduce risks to its people, property, and other resources. The organization unit can be as small as a family and as big as a large corporation, city, state government, nation, and the whole world.

    Irrespective of the size of the organization, when a disaster occurs it is the human response that counts. While it is apt to look to government agencies for support and solutions, it is the responsibility of each individual struck by the disaster to do everything possible to help the salvation process. Rather than wasting energies on the blame game and adhering to the bureaucracies, one should rise to the occasion and take responsibility to contribute to the relief process. The story of the six-year-old who took care of five or six younger children separated from their parents (and later reunited with them) speaks for the lessons to be learned.

    Blaming the government alone and seeking all answers through the state is like giving control of your life to someone else's hand. I am not defending the U.S. government's slow response at all—it must be investigated—but what I wish to say is that brotherhood will bring more solace at times of natural calamity than rules and regulations.

    • Beverly Withers
    • Director of Medical Services, Holiday House of Portsmouth

    I submit that the lesson learned here has to do with the uncovering of the disparity of economic lines. Those within private organizations did far better than those in the public system. With the amount of tourist revenue brought into that city, it is an unforgivable sin that so many should perish and suffer such devastation because the governmental officials of the city put off repairing the levees. If they had no intentions of reducing or erasing poverty for their people, then they should have at least repaired and monitored those levees because they knew this would eventually bring harm to the people. The personal loss and deaths of all those innocent people is on the hands of the president and those selected to protect us.

    As for lessons learned, maybe when those given the power by the people stop displacing blame, we can focus on the issues and not on those who were never qualified to hold such crucial positions in the first place.

    • Andrew Williamson
    • Citizen, Tempe, Arizona

    We need to have a blue-ribbon committee similar to the 9/11 Commission to study all the sources of the problems that contributed to this disaster and recommend changes to minimize the scope of a similar disaster.

    I would like to know to what extent the war in Iraq has affected our ability to respond quickly and sufficiently when a large-scale disaster occurs. Personnel and equipment from the National Guard should have been staged in sufficient numbers and in sufficient proximity to rescue New Orleans.

    • Anonymous

    These lessons:

    Criminals will exploit those in a weakened position. Poverty is a bigger problem than our country has acknowledged. Minorities as a whole are still struggling to achieve the socioeconomic status of whites. When under pressure because of unacceptable performance, poor leaders tend to blame others. People don't listen to those they don't trust. In general, government leaders are more about image and charisma than results. All U.S. cabinet members and senior leadership (like FEMA) should be approved by the Senate and the House of Representatives. Emergency response to events beyond the state's ability to handle them should immediately be federalized. Plan for evacuation and follow through. Stop the studies and speculations and do what is required to mitigate the impact of known potential natural disasters. Turn "what ifs" into actionable plans. Local government entities should take on the responsibility of ensuring the safety and welfare of their citizens.

    • Tammy Von Horn
    • Worldwide Field Marketing Manager, Synopsys

    Once again, this disaster is a reminder that in planning, even the most "unthinkable" could happen and should be accounted for. Knowing that all the dangers that befell New Orleans had been topics of discussion since the 1950s, yet were never adequately resolved, proves that those in authority fell victim to the "it could never happen to me" syndrome that ultimately cost not only millions of dollars but also human lives. The unthinkable does happen and it is our responsibility to plan in advance before the storm comes.

    • Cass Apple
    • Vice Chairman, Digital Records Corporation

    This thing has a long tail with the lives of hundreds of thousands of people involved. Those impacts are continually unfolding.

    The folks in charge do need to be able to get people out of the way who are paralyzed and not performing. The measure is not what happened—the measure is the effectiveness of each person now trying to help.

    • Anonymous

    First, let's state that in a time of crisis such as created by Katrina, the time, talent, and resources should be focused on eliminating immediate danger to human life and then helping those who are suffering. Clearly, this has not completely been the case. Instead, many have focused time and attention on political posturing and finger-pointing. There will be a time to learn from what has happened. But initially, we all need to lend our own personal resources to helping the relief effort move forward.

    Second, as much as we would like it to be the case, there are not fail-safes built into our lives. Unexpected things happen every day. However, some issues are more predictable than others. Perhaps having a highly populated city located on the coast and significantly below the water level of all the surrounding bodies of water is not the best approach. We can work all we want on the best levees in the world, but there will still be potential for a failure of this system.

    Third, I have listened to academics and politicians drone on about the issue being a federal disaster and failure, more than a natural disaster. The reality is that a natural disaster did occur in the form of a very significant hurricane. Who is most responsible to have a plan for evacuation and aid in the event of a hurricane in a given area? While I admit now is not the best time for this debate, it is underway and some reality needs to be brought into it.

    Our government structure starts at the local (city/township/county) level, then moves up to the state and finally the national level. It has to work this way since the people on the ground are the best able to assess the situation and make plans for these types of emergencies. Every city is different and has a different set of issues to deal with; our politicians in Washington cannot determine this. Local leadership must take ownership first. And in this case, the leadership locally seemed very inadequate and blame-focused rather than action-focused.

    Even so, people must understand that we make choices—about where we live and how we respond to events. The government can never, at any level, have enough resources to protect us from every possible natural disaster. Our personal safety is first and foremost our own responsibility. In the case of children, disabled, and the elderly, others in the community such as parents, relatives, friends, etc. need to step up and help.

    Fourth, the type of criminal activity that took place makes a very strong negative statement about the way that the people in the area responded. The response of preying upon others in a catastrophic situation is simply deplorable. We need to hold people accountable for these actions. I am living overseas currently, and I can tell you that this is an incredibly negative reflection upon our country. We are as a nation much better than this and need to demonstrate that to the world.

    • Cisse W. Spragins, Ph.D.
    • Founder/CEO, Rockwell Labs Ltd

    Sadly, none of the events in respect to the government's actions in the face of the New Orleans tragedy come as a surprise. Anyone who studies the factual history of government action with a critical eye can see that government is at worst dangerous, always corrupt, and at best inept.

    It is no surprise that the private sector responded first, and sadly, no surprise that when government did finally step in, they immediately denied private concerns from offering assistance and began herding people around like cattle, Soviet-style, ultimately shunting them off to holding camps in Utah, Colorado, and Arizona. Only government could order several hundred firefighters from around the country to go first to Atlanta to receive training in sexual harassment and FEMA assistance form-processing, rather than send them directly to New Orleans to fight the rampant fires and deal with the problems of toxic release that they've been trained to handle.

    Government by its very nature doesn't work because there is effectively no accountability or responsibility. Unlike the private sector, government is typically rewarded for dismal failure in the form of increased funding. (The public school system should come to mind). Until citizens realize that corruption and ineptitude are built into the very fabric of the State and just getting "our guys" in charge isn't going to change anything, we can unfortunately expect these types of tragedies to continue.

    • Anonymous

    The economics of flood control and mitigation have been studied exhaustively by FEMA and for centuries in low-lying areas of Europe. Effective protection must be a centralized government function, since a) any flood control system is only as strong as its weakest levee, and b) "He who defends everything defends nothing." (In other words, hard choices to exclude areas from protection must be made, or any system will be both uneconomic and ineffective.)

    The U.S. issue here is simply political: laissez-faire ideology and federalism cripple our society's planning and response to this particular risk. Flooding in the United States routinely causes large economic costs. The human tragedy resulting from Katrina may bring political consideration to the longstanding U.S. issue of land use that ignores long-term risk.

    • Eric Schmidt
    • Principal, Transitional Data Services

    The bottom line is that disaster recovery is still up to individual champions within most organizations.

    I offer my opinion as a business continuity professional. I have worked with business continuity professionals at the federal, state, and local levels, and they are all hardworking, caring individuals. A political appointee with little practical experience had no place running FEMA.

    Much like the adage that we hear about the real estate market—"location, location, location"—I believe there is a similar adage that applies to disaster recovery: "Practice, practice, practice." Jim Heskett's examples aside, the vast majority of companies and organizations in the world choose the "no response" scenario when they determine their risk response.

    Sadly, events such as 9/11, the Northeast and West Coast blackouts, and the hurricanes of the past two years have only taught some leaders the virtues of preparedness. But readiness is only achieved through practice. Several years ago, researchers at the University of Texas did a study that determined that of the 28 percent of companies that had a disaster response plan, only 18 percent of those plans had been tested. That means that only 5 percent of companies had any chance; the rest would be trying to learn as they went. And that's literally a recipe for disaster.

    The upside is that many more organizations are prepared these days. Most large enterprises have plans in place. Few small businesses, non-profits, or cities have any comprehensive planning, much less the chance to train. Exercises to train employees, build awareness, and test the plan for weakness are still few and far between. On average, a plan for disaster response, business continuity, or continuity of operations is tested once a year.

    And with the recent emphasis on terrorism and security threats, that's where the attention has focused. But there are many different scenarios, some of which require very different and non-intuitive responses. So we still have a long way to go. Organizations such as the New England Disaster Recovery Information X-Change (NEDRIX), plus degree programs such as Boston University's online Emergency Management and Operational Continuity program, are needed to provide guidance and training for many more professionals.

    • Anonymous

    First, we need to understand what a disaster declaration really means and does. It used to limit liability while granting access to state and federal resources. You used to be able to break rules and skip the red tape in order to save lives. You went back to the red tape after populations and properties were safe. Judging from the current response, those rules may no longer apply. Ask your Congressman.

    Second, we need to establish better relationships. Responders at every level should be maintaining response relationships. If your relationships are good, you know the players and you agree on the rules.

    Last, there needs to be accountability. If you don't have the skill or commitment, you don't belong in the game. Nothing ever works without positive intent. With commitment and positive intent, great things can happen. Compare the 9/11 response with the New Orleans response.

    • Roland Witherspoon

    I believe the major difference between a public and private sector response to a crisis is that the public sector does not have as many effective, accountable, qualified leaders in the front line and mid-level management roles. Therefore, it is difficult to plan, coordinate, and implement efficient solutions to any crisis.

    • Dennis Crane
    • President, Business Navigation Group

    The Katrina disaster offers many lessons and opportunities:

    • True leadership does make a difference. As Lincoln, Churchill, and others have shown, this leadership rises above adversity, bureaucracy, and tragedy. It inspires people in the darkest moments. It does not find fault. It concentrates on what's really important—and engages those who have something to give.

    • Scenario planning works best when an outside-in perspective leads to thinking about the unthinkable and then doing something about it. This can be huge or subtle. For instance, the victims temporarily housed in the Houston Astrodome who do not wish to relocate because they have already taken steps for loved ones and others to locate them. Do any of the evacuation/transitional housing preparations before Katrina make allowances for this human reaction?

    • The "coulda/shoulda" comments offered by arrogant, distant observers are worth little compared to the compassion and humility of those on-site who are actually doing the best they can.

    • K.G. Balakrishnan
    • Asst. Professor, VES Institute of Technology

    Mumbai, where I live, went through a similar man-made disaster on July 26. I say man-made because we have all played so much with nature (i.e., reclaimed land and choked waterways) that any "fight back" by nature will always catch us off guard.

    The biggest lesson to come from this: Don't play with nature. Biodiversity, environmental protection, and stricter coastal-area building laws need to be in place.

    Since communication always takes a hit, the hierarchical chain of command will break down. Presence of mind, coolness of response, leadership down to the lowest level—all of this helps.

    From personal experience, I can tell you that the human chain that formed in those crucial hours saved Mumbai from many more deaths, and that is no exaggeration.

    • Nitin Bartakke
    • Team Lead, Zensar

    As I see it there were two disasters, one natural and the other bureaucratic. Everyone was aware of the first and the second was just assumed. Neither the government nor the Army seemed to own up to the issues at hand in order to rescue people in time.

    The lesson here is to respect nature and never ignore it. Be ready to live with it. Do not act as Nero did with the fiddle (read: Bush with his guitar) but ensure that you reach the place in time with full force. This makes the common man's life better.

    • Shaun Dakin
    • Director, Product Management, Laureate Education, Inc.

    The lessons from Katrina are:

    1. A Democracy is a poor organization to proactively plan for disaster. All the think-tank thinkers, studies, and articles about the potential of the levees breaking mean nothing unless there is political will to act.

    2. The American people have bought into the Republican ideology that government is the enemy of the people. To quote Reagan, "We lost the war on poverty." After thirty years of dismantling the New Deal framework, the people have what they wanted: an underfunded, inept government of the rich, for the rich, and by the rich.

    • Donna Hedges

    I think there are a couple of issues here. Certainly our emergency response was not effective. In listening to the frustration expressed by the mayor of New Orleans, I wondered why so many people were left without a means to evacuate.

    In many respects, I believe that the good people of New Orleans thought they had once again dodged a major bullet. Once the levee broke, the situation changed dramatically and immediately. It's been known for years that the levee system needed major work and would not be sustained in the event of a major hurricane. Lack of a plan prior to this point to replace the levees contributed to this tragedy and was a major failure on the part of those involved.

    FEMA will need to do an extensive analysis on their response and of their policies, which hamper emergency efforts rather than facilitate them. In light of our ever-changing terror alert status, I'm surprised that FEMA didn't get a major re-vamp in order for their process to be more timely and flexible. We relied upon our military and national guard to a large degree. Once again our military personnel have proved themselves to be a most effective force. They should be commended, not downsized.

    From an administration standpoint, our government needs to focus on our country's broken agencies and processes. Any effective emergency response effort would need to address age-specific concerns: healthcare for the elderly, ill, and injured; strategies for care of children (both orphaned by the event and those with parents); and the immediate institution of martial law to protect victims from those who would seek to take advantage of a horrible situation. There is no excuse for the rapes, shootings, etc.

    I think the international community has cause to be shocked at what has occurred in the United States during this tragedy. It is extremely disappointing to listen to the use of this situation for political posturing and the attempts to draw this as a racial issue.

    • Gordon Yager
    • Director, Sales & Marketing, Chief Transportation Products

    The large-scale natural disaster that happened in the Gulf Coast is not substantially different from a large-scale, man-made disaster (i.e., terrorist attack) except for one major difference: There was time to be proactive. If there was a plan for handling this type of emergency, no single point of accountability seemed to be in charge of implementation. The plan (please tell me that there was one) needed to include evacuation, aid, rescue, public safety, communication, and identification of victims both dead and alive. Countless lives could have been saved by a proactive or at least a timely reactive response by an accountable entity.

    • Leslie Linton
    • Regional Program Director, March of Dimes Western Region Office

    Twelve lessons from Katrina (which will not be learned but should be):

    One, deferred maintenance is never a good idea, especially when it places hundreds of thousands of lives at risk.

    Two, hire people to run organizations (e.g., FEMA) who have real-world experience doing the work of the organization.

    Three, when lives are at stake, public and private should have no boundaries. Save the people and sort out the funding later.

    Four, when planning for emergencies, including evacuating a city, plans should be made for evacuating the poor, sick, old, and infirm first.

    Five, when setting up shelters within a potentially threatened community, those shelters should have enough resources including food, water, bathrooms, trash removal, and security to sustain basic human needs for at least a week—or the shelter should not be provided.

    Six, there should be a way to commandeer private resources (e.g., transportation) for public use when emergencies are imminent.

    Seven, once an evacuation order is given and arrangements are made for people to leave, those who disobey should be fined or made to understand that they will not be helped by the use of public resources in the event of a disaster.

    Eight, incentives should be given for preparedness to companies and individuals. Disasters are not an "if" situation, they are a "when."

    Nine, the blame game only goes so far. At this point, our government, major companies, the third sector, and individuals would be better off rebuilding and making plans so that the debacle of New Orleans does not happen again. Remember "when" not "if."

    Ten, companies including Mom & Pop gas stations should be fined for greed.

    Eleven, leaving animals to fend for themselves is the mark of an uncivilized country. Poor families should not have to choose between their own lives and the lives of their pets. When making future plans for sheltering people, plan for their animals as well. Pets and livestock are a part of the healing and rebuilding process.

    Twelve, pregnant women and families with newborns (NICU and otherwise) should be considered among the first people to evacuate. In addition, when sick family members must be moved, be sure to take a well family member with them to help coordinate their care and re-entry into the community.

    • Anonymous

    Ignorance. While the situation is tenuous and complex, to me the lesson is simple ignorance. The people making the decisions as to what to do and when had no clue about the situation: first, how people were surviving on a day-to-day basis before Katrina, and second, on the likelihood of severe flooding in this area. Maybe the fifth "why" might be that this area has been economically depressed for so long that the people were apathetic about their situation, which led to inadequate representation or lobby power that would have forced the government to establish levees that provided more than adequate protection from inevitable flooding. The tax base had to have been so shallow that I can imagine us justifying inaction based on an insufficient return on investment; and yes, it is sickening to think that.

    • David Physick

    What I believe needs to be asked is why there was such a rapid breakdown in social order. Is this a consequence of leadership practices? Can the United States justifiably be considered "civilized" if 12 percent of the population is living in poverty? Are the questions posed by Charles Handy in his seminal Harvard Business Review article "What's Business For?" being ignored? Is it acceptable that Wal-Mart donates just $25 million? Isn't that furthering the social divisions by being parsimonious to its customers who have created that organization's wealth?

    • Paul T. Jackson
    • Consultant / Owner, Trescott Research

    Growing up in Michigan I saw snowplows on the roads well before any impending snowstorm hit, ready to go the moment the first flake hit the ground.

    If in fact FEMA was ready before the storm, how did it happen that it took days before any governmental unit, other than local, was effectively doing anything visible—all the while news media crews could get there and civilian groups arranged to have flat-bottom boats brought in? As a former United Way director of a small town in the 1970s, I know that it took FEMA (or whatever the agency it was then) three days before they showed up after a tornado hit our town, well after we had organized most things ourselves.

    Inevitably, the Salvation Army is the first to show up at disaster areas, along with people wanting to sell you something. So perhaps we can learn from snowplows, the Salvation Army, and the people and companies having something to sell. Let them at it, and pay them later. Yes, it is important to organize, but people can't wait for assessments and organization every time. People need to participate without being stopped or penalized.

    Leaders don't want to be wrong, and when they are they won't admit it. Get rid of bureaucratic leaders and put in their place entrepreneurs, and the problems we saw in New Orleans won't exist in the future.

    • Anonymous

    Knowing your customer and having that relationship with them makes good business sense as well as political sense. I strive to be a servant leader to my direct reports because not only do I care about my business, I also care about them. When you see dangers in your business or your government and you are in a position to do something, you must act. The inactions of those who could have done so much has cost so many, some paying with their very lives!

    The captain does not have to go down with the ship if he gets all of his sailors to safety. You cannot let the enormity of any situation freeze you to taking little or no action.

    • Anonymous

    I wonder about the culture of government organizations. The few that I have been involved with do not seem to attract employees who are willing to go against the long-term policies or people. (NASA's problems come to mind.) Quick decision making and quick commitment to solutions are not two descriptives that come to mind when I think of government agencies.

    I think these types of disasters require lots of serious planning (along with funding) to be able to execute the plan when it is really needed. Clear lines of communication, strong processes, and people (and backups) all need to be in place and ready to work effectively during a crisis. I think it has to start on a local level, then state, then national.

    My heart and thoughts go out to all the people of the Gulf Coast who have needlessly suffered due to poor leadership. Maybe this will be the start of a better method to handle such events.

    • Yuko Nakanishi
    • President, Nakanishi Research and Consulting

    Conflict among federal, state, and local officials and agencies appears to have been a contributor to the confusion and slow response in New Orleans. Any ambiguity that may potentially arise in future emergency response situations must be eliminated ASAP.

    • Anonymous

    While sentimental value, culture, and history are important, the concept of NOT rebuilding a city in a bowl does not appear to be considered seriously. I await the results of the commission which will undoubtedly be formed to find out what went right and wrong. With global warming, the odds of more major storms seem to increase the probability of this scenario happening more frequently to coastal cities. There are more than levees to be considered: Significant erosion rates are noted in many areas.

    Fortunately, some employers are excellent about knowing the impact of such disasters on their employees and finding creative ways to provide support and employment.

    • Anonymous

    I believed that the lack of common protocol among many government agencies caused this chaotic situation in New Orleans. If the federal government cannot lead in this kind of disaster situation, state and local city government definitely cannot manage this kind of problem. Homeland Security, the agency in charge of this situation, did not perform as we expected.

    • Faith MacPherson
    • Director of Payroll & HRIS US, Avery Dennison

    Devise a maintenance plan and stick with it. The cost to maintain the levees could have saved significant dollars and lives on the back end. Too often we don't want to spend money because "things are working." This tragedy shows that it is better to be proactive than reactive.

    • Anonymous

    It was not nature but our own deficiency and state of mind that failed in New Orleans. It is time we stopped counting the dollar damage or dollar opportunity. We must take responsibility for having a weak society and work towards making a better one. For that, anyone anywhere can take the lead.

    • Neal M. Burns
    • Professor, Director, Center for Brand Research

    The political spins and interpretations will continue, and it is that spin from Washington—"There is time enough later for finger-pointing; now we must knuckle down and do the rescue work"—that prevents the analysis and candor needed for learning. The ineptitude of those now in power makes it unlikely that their current and downstream decisions will be solid and thoughtful, and even more unlikely that they will contribute to an understanding of what went wrong. In these cases, the likelihood of improvement depends upon the administration's use of beyond-reproach academic and industry members. Hard to do.

    • M. Mwariri
    • Corporate Planner, Wamunde Farm Limited

    Disaster response needs to be taken to a whole new level, with plans bridged to expectations by stakeholders (like those affected) and a demand on institutions and governmental budgets to set aside contingent liability funds in their annual accounts as a cushion against a repeat of the Katrina aftermath. Nature has spoken. How shall we respond?

    • E. Hassen
    • NHS

    Two things come to mind. Plans are nothing; Planning is everything! And, get the right people on the right vehicle before you select the right destination.

    The rate of change accelerates and the number of disasters, natural and otherwise, is only going to increase. Events cannot be predicted with a long lead time. Every organization needs to be more flexible, more modular, and more adaptable. Large organizations especially need to be reconfigured.

    Lessons: The future is unpredictable. Trust and credibility are crucial. Respond promptly.

    • Anonymous

    Personal responsibility is paramount. We are born dependent upon our parents. We are weaned away into independence. We become interdependent in society. But the ultimate responsibility for our own survival is our own preparation. If we are prepared to help ourselves, we will be better able to help others who might be infirm or incapable of judgment.

    To infer that the government is responsible for our own survival is wrong. If I were a citizen of New Orleans, knowing that I was living below sea level and surrounded by water that could and would flood, I would have been all over my political representatives to assure that the levees could withstand the worst-case scenario.

    Then rehearse, rehearse, rehearse worst-case scenarios. As with astronauts, prepare so that it becomes second nature. If it is to be it is up to me!