Lessons From Katrina

Every disaster offers lessons on emergency preparedness. Katrina is no exception. As I write this, floodwaters are pumped from New Orleans, and questions abound in the media. Finger-pointing is rampant among the media, politicians and others. Rape, violence and pandemonium rather than stoic fortitude have been the early media images. 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 on the news who had just lost everything who only wanted to thank the rest of the nation for their kindness and generosity rather than to wallow in self pity. I am not sure I could demonstrate such fortitude were I in his shoes.

Every crisis can evoke the most noble and evil traits in people and their organizations. Having worked disasters while I was in the emergency management field, I would feel reckless and irresponsible to toss out criticism at this point. I can however, offer observations that restate critical points learned from this and other disasters.

Preparedness is important — Most of us tend to underestimate the importance of emergency preparedness measures until we are hammered by catastrophic events. This is human nature. This is one reason I am so concerned about campus safety consultants who operate outside of their actual fields of qualifications. There are a number of consultants who readily accept contracts relating to emergency preparedness work without any formal background in the field of emergency management. In addition, the field of emergency management has traditionally been poorly funded at the local, state and national level. This is often true of institutions of higher learning as well. A major university is larger than many cities, yet only a few employ a full-time emergency management coordinator. Now is a good time for campus safety professionals to push for increased support for emergency preparedness measures for their institutions.

Prepare to go it alone — We occasionally see disasters of 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 an opportune 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.

Communications — 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 an emergency exercise. The district has one of the most elaborate school safety plans in the nation, a plan far superior to the majority of plans for institutions of higher learning. 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 the 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). For your institution to communicate smoothly with local, state and federal emergency responders during a catastrophic event, NIMS is a must. Colleges and universities should incorporate NIMS into their written plans, conduct formal NIMS training for key personnel and 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 organization 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 someday.

Michael Dorn is an internationally recognized campus safety expert who has authored and co-authored numerous books on the topic. He is the senior public safety and emergency management analyst for Jane’s Consultancy. He can be reached at .

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at www.safehavensinternational.org.