Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

Watching the news coverage of hurricane Katrina has been like watching a Greek tragedy as forces beyond human control push events toward their inevitable conclusions. The play is unfinished. We know that more horrors have yet to be revealed. But what lesson, if any, can we learn from Katrina?

It was predictable.

From the initial interviews with people unwilling or unable to leave their homes, through the films of trees bending in high winds and debris blowing through deserted streets, to the reporters standing in the wind to demonstrate its force, to the failure of the levees and the flooding of New Orleans. It was all so very predictable. Even the path of the hurricane was accurately predicted.

So what went wrong? Why was the aftermath so terrible?

What we need to concentrate on is not why hurricane Katrina caused so much damage — that is what hurricanes do. The question we need to ask is why the emergency response plans were so inadequate. We can excuse a poor response to the unlikely and the unpredictable. We can't excuse such a response to the likely and the utterly predictable. There were no unfortunate coincidences here. No rare events. No unexpected Hollywood-style plot twists. No maniacal terrorists. Only the crushing inevitability of nature.

It's too early to assign blame. Finding a scapegoat doesn't help much in the long run. What is important now is to ensure that similar failures of preparation, planning and response do not occur elsewhere, whether we are considering a city, a neighborhood, our company, or our family.

Are there other predictable disasters waiting in the wings to take the stage? Do we have a suitable plan? Are our plans adequate? Will our emergency response work? These are the questions we should all be asking.

Or are we just feeling lucky?

5 September 2005

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