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Katrina: Strategy Versus Tactics

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I'm joining in the Monday-morning quarterbacking here about Katrina, not for political reasons, just to provide what little insight I can. There are two major flaws I see in the current crisis: 1) failure to differentiate between strategy and tactics, and 2) failure for critics to come up with specific criticisms.

First -- everybody knows that FEMA has plans. Plans are good things. But people need to understand what a plan is, and what it isn't. And a lot of people don't.
I get so frustrated sometimes when I teach process that it drives me nuts. Good, smart people, when given the task of creating a plan, give me a to-do list. Or worse yet, a schedule. Neither a list of things to do not a calendar of people and events are a plan -- these are the results of a plan.
I'm sure that FEMA had long lists of units, resources, logistical considerations, etc. They probably even had a unified command system set up after the disaster (although I am not so sure about this.) What were they missing?
Plans are lists of risks and strategies to deal with them. THAT is a plan. What are the risks here? Contaminated water, persistent flooding, urban poor population, heat, limited ingress and egress points -- that's just a few. You begin with a risk analysis and work strategies from there. Strategies will give you long-term movement of people and resources that will eventually reach your goals.
The first trick is that this "risk list" varies from city-to-city, and from disaster to disaster. New Orleans has a very special CAT-4 hurricane risk-set that is nothing like Biloxi's. So the response strategy -- the plan -- should be different. I'm not so sure that it was, but I don't know enough to tell.
The second trick is that the risk list must be constantly updated during the crises. This is called tactics. Looting, large number of stranded people, no toilet facilities, no trash collection -- these indicate risks that need to be gathered real-time. The trick is to start with the strategy, and then act immediately to tactical risk indicators Blending the two together makes for effective management.
So how could agencies and leaders find the real-time risks to address? Aside from the usual command and control traffic, use the news media! They get paid for finding stuff wrong anyway. What a beautiful synergistic opportunity there is here. Set up a toll-free complaint line. Collecting, analyzing, and addressing these real time risks are essential, not simply reading from a common playbook.
So learn risk analysis and management, guys. Please? A huge amount of resources is only as good as the nimbleness of the response.
That's about it for my advice, but I'm hearing all sorts of trash on TV lately. And it only will get worse. For all of those wonks that are going to appear on my screen in the next months, I ask only this: please give me specific information and criticism. Saying the elected guy sucks (whether the mayor, governor, or president) may make you look good and get you votes, but it does not help the rest of us save lives the next time something like this happens.
I know it is fun to have a fit, especially with a TV camera in front of you, but could you please do something constructive? Saying "The National Guard did not get there in time" is not adequate, since we know that the NG units were mobilized within hours of the hurricane. What held them up? Obviously somebody made a decision to stage outside of town. Perhaps because there was limited access to the city, and they didn't know if they were going to be cut-off. Stranding ten thousand guard units in the city just makes for more victims, it doesn't help any. Was that the decision? If so, does it make sense in hindsight? Was there information that the leader was missing?
This type of analysis -- looking at who made decisions, what information they had, and what they needed to know -- is useful and productive. It will save lives in the future. Unfortunately, with terrorism and an increasing number of hurricanes, it might save lives in the near future. Let's pull together constructively, okay?

2 Comments

I think you have hit the nail on the head. It is easy for politicians and the media to appear in front of the cameras and bash what is going on. When I hear politicians trying to use this as political stumping ground or people trying to make this into a racist event, I become sick to my stomach. I would like for them to make specific suggestions, not wide, sweeping statements decided to upset the people listening. I would also like people to think about this...do you really think it would have gone any quicker if the majority of refugees were white? I say hogwash! Stop shouting and pointing fingers and roll up your sleeves and get in there and help. When everyone is out and safe, then you can sit back and try to figure out what could have been done better. No doubt there are lessons to be learned here and things that need to be reevaluated for the future, but it would be nice for that to be done in a constructive manner instead of a finger pointing manner.

There were so many things here that needed to be done and in a perfect world, they all would have been done at once! Save the living, evacuate, get them food and water, start collecting the dead...it is mind boggling. When I look at what has been accomplished in a few days, I am amazed. Millions of dollars have already been raised by private citizens, add to that company donations and world-wide offers of assistance. Refuges are being set up across the country. States are paving the way to weave refugees into their communities.

There are boards set up to help find the missing. People are being rescued, people are being evacuated, and in Mississippi, relief is arriving. So while there are problems and since we don't live in a perfect world, all aspects weren't able to be addressed simultaneously, I hope we don't forget to praise the people who are in there. The ones who are risking their lives to save people. So much good has been done, don't forget to thank those who have done what they have. Don't let them get lost in the shuffle while we all sit around and say how we could have done it better.

There are great lessons to be learned here, let's just hope we are listening and learning. And in the meantime, act! And thank you to all of those who are out there helping!

The same thing always happens around here when we have bad winter weather that knocks out the electricity. The power company gets criticized for not getting it back on in a timely manner, when the fact is they simply can't reach the broken lines in remote locations when the snow is too deep or the ice is too thick. It's all part of the assumption that corporations and governments are all-powerful and can perform godly acts of good or devilish acts of evil. While it's true they have greater resources and equipment than your average home-owner's association, they're still subject to the same laws of physics and they're not impervious to the forces of nature.

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This page contains a single entry by Daniel published on September 3, 2005 3:25 PM.

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Daniel Markham