Lessons from Katrina

CBS News anchor and host of Face the Nation Bob Schieffer, describing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, said:

"We have come through what may have been one of the worst weeks in America's history, a week in which government at every level failed the people it was created to serve. There is no purpose for government except to improve the lives of its citizens. Yet as scenes of horror that seemed to be coming from some Third World country flashed before us, official Washington was like a dog watching television. It saw the lights and images, but did not seem to comprehend their meaning or see any link to reality."

Yet it emphatically should not have been that way, and governments around the world must start asking some penetrating questions about just what that spectacular failure of "every level" of government portends about their own emergency management and business continuity plans.

Because just months before Katrina wreaked a trail of death and destruction across the Gulf Coast and seemingly paralyzed first responders, the US Office of Personnel Management asked agencies nationwide if they were prepared for a natural disaster. And the answer it received, from all 85 responding agencies, including 15 cabinet-level departments, was an emphatic "yes".

OPM said the results of the survey, conducted in April, "reflect very high levels of emergency preparedness." According to the agencies surveyed, they were ready to take care of their own in the event of a disaster, such as Katrina.

The idea, according to OPM, was for agencies to "be able to maintain business continuity" and keep running the country, even during times of disaster. More than 90 percent of the agencies surveyed said their facilities had an up-to-date Occupant Emergency Plan, which outlines guidelines in terms of designating emergency personnel, contingency work plans, evacuation procedures and more.

Fat lot of good any of that did the hapless denizens of the new Atlantis, left to drown while their governments floundered. Perhaps if those departments had focussed as much on taking care of their citizens as on their own, things might have been different. So while many government departments in Australia have excellent disaster recovery and BCP plans in place - on paper - now is the time to take a long hard look at the devastations wrought by Katrina to ask "Are our plans focussing on the right things? Would we have done any better in a real-life disaster?"

Because when push came to shove, reported Newsweek, a "strange paralysis" set in among Bush administration officials, who debated lines of authority while thousands died. Disaster management folk know the first 72 hours after a natural disaster are the crucial window during which prompt action can save many lives. Instead, untold numbers were left to die while their governments dithered.

Still, some contingency plans worked well. For instance a continuity of operations plan team for the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, which has several regional offices along the Gulf Coast, set up a contingency office in Houston, and was "transferring regional office operations and a limited number of staff" to the new location as a result of damage to offices from the hurricane.

Now the focus must turn to the centrality of IT to the task of helping all of those displaced people rebuild shattered social networks, and when necessary, to integrate permanently displaced families and individuals into existing social networks in new locales. But when the post mortems begin, some of the focus, in this country as well as in the US, should be on whether some disaster plans have lost sight of the most primary function of government - to protect its citizens. After all, there would be precious little point ensuring the smooth operation of government if there were no citizens around to serve.

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