Hurricane Katrina: Learning from a Tragedy

It is hard to believe that ten years have passed since Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. I had the great pleasure to be in Crescent City this past week as the tragedy of Katrina was remembered. As I was thinking about this commemoration it occurred to me that Katrina was clearly not only a natural disaster but also a leadership disaster at almost every level. Consequently, as we reflect on Katrina and mourn the nearly 2,000 people who lost their lives, leaders should think carefully on what can be learned from this crisis or any crisis to make ourselves and our organizations stronger and better.

A crisis is normally defined as a sudden unexpected disaster, but leaders must recognize that they can unfold slowly over time. Sadly, many of the warnings about the impact of Katrina on the city’s troubled levees were ignored as it approached New Orleans. Crises can be analyzed by careful consideration of their three phases: before the crisis, immediate actions during a crisis, and the aftermath. Leaders must keep this in mind as they not only prepare their organizations to meet the challenge of crisis, react initially, but also learn from crises in order to strengthen them and prepare for new challenges in future.

Before the crisis leaders need to consider how to build resilience. First, it is the leader’s responsibility to emphasize the importance of the organization’s mission, vision, and values. These are the “guardrails” for the organization and provide guidance to all during difficult times. This is a primary role for any leader. If the leader does not talk about them…who will? Second, leaders must emphasize empowerment when things are proceeding normally. This will encourage a climate of initiative at all levels so individuals throughout the organization can take actions quickly during a crisis. Third, crisis planning to include succession planning is essential. General Eisenhower once said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” This is true for leaders today as much as it was for Ike as he prepared for the Normandy invasion. The planning process forces organizations to consider the difficult “what if” questions, recognize that plans that are not rehearsed are useless, and prepare to adapt those plans as the crisis dictates.

Each crisis is unique but careful consideration must be taken of a number of critical factors as the crisis unfolds. First, a leader must never underestimate the severity of a crisis. It may be better to overreact than to be caught ill prepared. Sadly, this lesson seems to stand out clearly in any examination of Katrina. Second, the first question a leader must ask is not “what to do” but rather “what is the problem”? Taking time at the onset to determine the range of issues, options, goals, etc. is key to an effective response. A crisis may be a time when a leader must “make haste slowly.” Third, Colin Powell often said, “optimism is a force multiplier.” Even though the situation may appear dire it is incumbent upon the leader to project optimism and confidence that the organization can meet the challenge. Finally, the leader must further realize the crisis may last a significant period of time. A crisis is often a marathon and not the fifty-yard dash! The leader may need to not only pace him/herself but also be aware of the stress and strain that individual members of the team are experiencing.

Finally, a crisis is a terrible teacher, but effective organizations are those that learn from the experience. In its aftermath leaders must insist that an organized effort is undertaken to examine what can be learned from the crisis. Careful consideration needs to be made of all aspects of the crisis. All stakeholders need to be involved as well as members of the organization both young and old. This is critical if meaning is to be found in negative events. It may drive the organization not only to review and adjust crisis action plans but also create a new vision for the organization. It may force the organization to consider such questions as: Who can we become? Who relies on us now?

I had the chance to read Please Forward: How Blogging Reconnected New Orleans After Katrina by Cynthia Joyce while I was in New Orleans. I strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in this crisis. It uses the digital diaries of those most affected by the storm that were written between August 2005 and August 2007. Please Forward is a raw, frank accounting of this immense tragedy and the heartbreak it inflicted on the lives of literally hundreds of thousands of people for years in its aftermath. As I read it on this tenth anniversary it seemed that two things were very clear: first, New Orleans has returned. It is a vibrant, young, festive city, but it still suffers from enormous challenges from poverty and racial inequality with many neighborhoods still showing the ravages brought about by Katrina. Second, one has to admire the resilience and strength of the human spirit that in the face of this crisis people came together to meet the challenge. One only hopes that spirit will persist, leaders will learn from this catastrophe, and when I return to New Orleans in 2025 I will find “the Big Easy” has made even greater strides than can be imagined today.