It’s hard to believe five years have passed since Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans, especially when we still see the scars of the disaster on the city and its people. 2005 was a year marked by hurricanes, tsunamis, bombings, wildfires, mudslides, earthquakes, and an avian flu pandemic scare. Hearts were heavy as we rang in the year with massive disaster recovery operations in Southeast Asia following an unexpected underwater earthquake and subsequent tsunami. London was rocked by an act of terrorism just one day after its victory in the bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games. Hurricanes Dennis, Emily, Rita, Katrina, and Wilma pummeled the Caribbean and Southeastern U.S. while earthquakes devastated Pakistan. An outbreak of avian flu gripped Asia, threatening to become a flu pandemic.
In some cases, such as Hurricane Katrina, lack of preparation and communications failures delayed rescue efforts severely during the first critical days of the disaster and hampered recovery activities in the ensuing months. With other crises, such as the tsunami in Southeast Asia, there were no warnings at all, leading to massive loss of life and property and a tremendous impact on the economy for years to come.
Five years wiser, what have we learned? What’s different?
1. People have higher expectations and are holding organizations to those expectations. The public has an increasingly low tolerance for failing to communicate, withholding information, shifting blame, or playing possum. The handling of Hurricane Katrina showed that in 2005; Toyota and BP reinforced that in 2010, sparking public ire. Organizations must be able to communicate responsibly and be willing to be transparent. To communicate, it’s no longer enough to broadcast information into the stratosphere or speak over constituents’ heads and expect them to grab the bits of information that are important to them. Communication must be timely, relevant, targeted, and understandable.
2. Communication technology is a critical enabler, but not an excuse for gaps in people and processes. Technology without the people and processes to make it effective is like a wind-up toy that keeps banging up against the wall. Having an incident notification system in place is the first step in ensuring basic communication capability during a disaster. It is expected. However, we run the risk of failure if we haven’t trained people how to communicate.
3. Communication needs vary throughout a crisis. Communication is multi-dimensional; it’s not a one-time event. During a disaster or other emergency, we must be able to maintain an ongoing dialogue with the people we protect. Their information needs change throughout the course of the crisis. (Download Chandler’s Six Stages of a Crisis for more information.) What we tell them, how we tell them, and the actions we ask them to take all change. As we saw with Katrina, response and recovery efforts can last weeks, months, and years. Communication is critical to progress and full recovery.
4. If we don’t communicate first, someone will do it for us. People will fill in the gaps for you in absence of information. The explosion of social media has made everyone a journalist and spokesperson, providing a deluge of information and sometimes muddying the waters, especially when that information is inaccurate. The key is to react quickly and be transparent and forthcoming.
5. Everyone is a first responder. During a large-scale disaster, we cannot rely solely on our government or our employers or other organizations to get us through. We as a community are intricately involved in managing through a disaster, rebuilding, and recovering. Honest and open two-way communication is important to mobilizing citizens and enabling them to help themselves and help us during a disaster.
6. Preparedness has no substitute. We must test every aspect of our plans – people, processes, technology, and messaging – as thoroughly as possible before disaster strikes. The best thing that can happen is for the plan to fail so we can course-correct now rather than during a real situation. The importance of preparedness is not new; we’ve simply taken it to a higher level.
2005 taught us that, in every event, the ability to communicate through each stage of a crisis affects our ability to save lives and property and continue operations. The phrase “plan today, survive tomorrow” applies to organizations as much as it does to individuals.
“The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.”
So said John Fitzgerald Kennedy, thirty-fifth president of the United States, more than four decades ago. Despite years of technological progress since, his statement has never been truer than today.
Has FEMA Recovered From Hurricane Katrina? (npr.org)
What If Hurricane Katrina Hit New Orleans Today? (livescience.com)
What Have Engineers Learned from Katrina? (scienceblog.com)
Brown says not giving context was ‘fatal mistake’ during Katrina (cnn.com)