Editorial: The Limits of Preparation

Sept. 1, 2005
Leadership takes over where preparation ends.

What people waiting for help in New Orleans had to endure in the days following Hurricane Katrina, the frustration and despair of their would-be protectors and rescuers, the destroyed homes and the deaths of people throughout the region, are heartbreaking.

As I write this people are still being evacuated from their houses, the chemical and sewagefilled water flooding the city is being pumped back into Lake Pontchartrain, electrical power and relief workers are beginning to reach the rural areas of Mississippi, but the political finger pointing is already in high gear. Anger, grief and other emotions remain raw among both elected officials and storm victims. Many are still caught up in Katrina's whirlpool of misery. We will no doubt hear many more stories of suffering, as well as acts of heroism, in the coming weeks.

Hurricane Katrina revealed a lot about our country. It revealed a lot about the American people and our leaders, and how well various government organizations have been trained to respond in a crisis. By many accounts the response of the U.S. Coast Guard has been exemplary, moving its members and equipment out of harm's way until the storm passed, and then moving back in to pluck thousands from rooftops by helicopter. As politicians of all stripes have acknowledged, other government organizations at the local, state and the federal level, failed to carry out their duties. As a result people died who could have survived.

It will take time to unravel everything that could have been done. "Preparation" will come up frequently in the Congressional hearings and inquiries to follow. Why wasn't their more preparation for the evacuation of those least able to help themselves? Why weren't government agencies immediately prepared to provide protection, food, water and shelter, once the winds had stopped blowing?

But government officials had prepared. In July of 2004 emergency officials from 50 parish, state, federal and volunteer organizations staged a mock hurricane. Hurricane Pam, a category 3 storm with sustained winds of 120 mph, dropped 20 inches of rain and produced a storm surge that topped the levees. Held at the Louisiana State Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge, the exercise used realistic weather and damage information developed by the National Weather Service and other groups, which estimated that such a storm would destroy over 500,000 buildings and force more than one million residents to evacuate.

Planners determined that there would be 30 million cubic yards of debris and 237 cubic yards of household hazardous waste. The team prioritized debris removal and located existing landfills and hazardous waste disposal sites.

An interagency group identified the need for 1,000 shelters, and estimated the resources that would be necessary to support those 1,000 shelters for 100 days.

A search and rescue team developed a transportation plan for getting stranded residents of New Orleans and the surrounding parishes out of harm's way.

A medical team made plans to immunize people for tetanus, influenza and other diseases likely to crop up following such a storm. They also looked at how to re-supply hospitals that would face heavy patient loads.

Based on the action plans released after the Hurricane Pam exercise, officials at all levels were well aware of the problems they would face if such a storm flooded the city. They predicted that only one-third of residents would evacuate in time. They foresaw that thousands could not and would not leave the city, even under a mandatory evacuation order, and that many people would be without emergency relief for days.

In the hours before and the first few days following the real storm, all of this analysis and preparation fell apart.

Anyone involved in logistics knows that when everything goes according to plan, material handling activities go completely unnoticed. That's how it should be. When material handling failures do occur, they are blatantly apparent to customers and everyone else in the organization. It's wrong that much of the nation's attention has been diverted by the problems getting relief workers and supplies to the afflicted areas in the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina, rather than focused on the recovery efforts.

Material handling professionals also know that there are limits to preparation and contingency plans. Like the breaks in the levees surrounding New Orleans, some things will happen that were not anticipated. We can never prepare for everything. How organizations will respond to the unexpected must be part of their preparation efforts. In the heat of the event, leadership takes over where preparation ends.

The prayers of the staff of Material Handling Management go out to the victims of Hurricane Katrina who lost loved ones, whose property was destroyed, and who've had to relocate to strange surroundings far from home. We wish you a full and speedy recovery.