Every disaster offers lessons on emergency preparedness. Katrina is no exception. I write this as floodwaters are pumped from New Orleans and questions abound in the media. Fingerpointing is rampant among the press, politicians and others. Rape, violence and pandemonium, rather than stoic fortitude have been the early media images. When emergency preparedness efforts fall short, you can rest assured there will be plenty of blame to go around. Thankfully, stories of individuals, organizations and government rising to the challenge have also surfaced, and America is lining up to help. I watched a man from Mississippi who had just lost every material possession simply want to thank the rest of the nation for their kindness and generosity, rather than to wallow in self pity. I am not sure I would demonstrate such fortitude were I in his shoes.

Every crisis can evoke the most admirable or despicable traits in men and their organizations. Having worked disasters while I working for a state emergency management agency, I would feel reckless and irresponsible to toss out criticism at this point. Who was prepared and who was not, who made bad decisions and who showed sound judgment, is not my place to judge at this juncture. I can, however, offer observations that restate critical points from this and other disasters.

Here are a few observations for catastrophic events.

Preparedness Is Important

We have a tendency to underestimate the importance of emergency preparedness measures until we are hammered by catastrophic events. This is human nature. When I left a 20-year career as a law enforcement officer to enter the arena of emergency management, I quickly learned how much I did not know about emergency preparedness. This is one reason I am so concerned about consultants who operate out of their actual fields of expertise. Now is a good time for school officials charged with safety responsibilities to work with qualified consultants and local and state emergency management officials for increased support for emergency preparedness measures. Meticulous emergency operations plan development, a viable training program for employees, public awareness efforts and an effective exercise program will save money and may someday save lives.

Prepare to Go It Alone

We occasionally see disasters of such a scale that those impacted by it must operate for a time with little to no support from local, state and federal emergency response agencies. Now is the time for a careful review of emergency supplies, backup power systems and internal emergency response capabilities.

Recovery Planning

Like last year’s hurricanes, Katrina demonstrates the incredible challenges that many organizations can face resuming operations following a catastrophic event. A robust written mental health recovery plan and a realistic business continuity plan can make or break your organization’s recovery from a crisis. Here again, we commonly see those who lack a formal mental health background in recovery operating as consultants and doing considerable damage.


Fast and reliable communications are needed to resolve any crisis situation, but catastrophic events like Katrina strain communications systems far beyond the norm. Disaster communications problems stem from two main sources: technical equipment problems and flawed human networks. Careful planning and testing of plans is a must for reliability under actual field conditions. Our firm recently helped one of the nation’s largest school systems test their emergency communications network with a series of emergency exercises. The final exercise was likely the largest exercise of its type ever conducted, with more than 200 schools participating. The district has one of the most elaborate school safety plans in the nation, a plan far superior to the majority of school system plans. The plans include carefully developed triple redundant systems for emergency communications. During the exercise, the emergency communications plan failed, revealing several simple, yet critical flaws that would have cost lives had the scenario been real. Due to their wisdom in vetting their plans, the district’s leadership has identified and repaired the gaps in their communications network before, rather than during, a crisis.

National Incident Management System

Another lesson for campus officials offered by Katrina is the need to be more aggressive in implementing the National Incident Management System (NIMS). The best way for your organization to communicate smoothly with local, state and federal emergency responders during a catastrophic event, NIMS is a must. In addition, school systems that are not NIMS compliant may be ruled ineligible for federal disaster funding in the future. School systems should incorporate NIMS into their written plans, conduct formal NIMS training for key personnel and to test NIMS in their exercises.

My heart goes out to those who have suffered so terribly from Katrina’s wrath. You will always face challenges in your efforts to prepare your schools for the day you pray never comes, and I urge you to press the fight with all the vigor you can muster. Lives may well depend on it.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at www.safehavensinternational.org.