Archive for October, 2005

Rita: A lesson in chaos management The scare of H…

Rita: A lesson in chaos management

The scare of Hurricane Rita was one of those events that totally paralyzed Houston, the 4th largest city in USA, and its surrounding areas. Fortunately, the city was spared the devastation that a hurricane of Rita’s magnitude would have caused had it hit Galveston directly, but it made visible the cracks in the administration at the city, state and federal level in the handling of such emergency situations. It was the second time in a month, first with hurricane Katrina and then Rita, when there was no coordination between government departments to ensure the management of a heightened public state of fear. Many analysts are sounding their views on how the situation could have been managed better. In this article we will contribute our two cents to suggest few things that might be useful in improving government functionality in times of crisis.

The first obvious element in all this was lack of coordination between various mayoral offices with their state government counterparts. We need to define who will be in charge when a State of Emergency is declared so that all other administrators can coordinate with that official and his staff. Since most of the emergency situations will arise in a particular geographic area the most suitable person is the Mayor of the city. He should be the point man in all communication and actions. We have seen this scenario work effectively in the incident of 911 when Mayor R. Juliani rose above the situation and did not even allow the governor to interfere in the operation. The Mayor should be given extraordinary powers, when a State of Emergency is declared, to activate state and federal agencies required by the city administration according to the nature of the emergency. That does not mean he should not inform the agencies. All it means is that the mayor’s demand for a resource from another agency should be met without delay. Mayors are much more familiar with the ground realities of their region than any other entity sitting in a state or federal capital. In terms of legality of these powers, a Mayor can send request for the powers from the Governor through a written request explaining the reasons. In case surrounding areas are also affected, the mayors can form a mayoral committee and choose one person among them to lead the efforts.

Most large cities have divided their administrations into various districts represented by district Councilmen elected by the people. When it was known that Rita might hit Houston these district councilmen should have initiated command centers in their districts to feed the central mayor office about the situation in their areas. These councilmen should have sent police to provide protection to gas stations in case of vandalism and unrest. Many gas stations only have a staff of one or two people at a time and are not equipped to handle panicked customers. Many stations although filled with gas tanks decided to close their stations from fear of vandalism that actually intensified the panic and created artificial scarcity of gasoline. A similar situation was experienced in Food stores where people started hoarding food sufficient for weeks and months creating a food crisis.

The media did little to calm the panic. Each channel presented its own weather experts with over 12 different tracks for the storm, which is fine. What was worrisome was that at the end of each presentation they would say something to the effect like “No roadwork in the country can handle a mad rush of people”. Such dramatization of facts by the news media was done over and over again. Facts, of course are of great importance in such times but highly charged news could also endanger lives. Media channels, striving hard to heighten the drama, and to beat each other at it, broadcasted different messages from each channel, instead of the same message from all news media. To avoid this, when a state of emergency is declared, the Mayor should form a media council comprising of the top 5 channels, by viewers, in the region to broadcast one message from all channels to reduce conflicting messages to the masses. This media panel will give one message instead of five different messages from each channel. The media council can decide the content and presentation of this emergency broadcast without interference from the government officials.

The disaster in New Orleans from Katrina was partly from the storm but largely from the failure of the levee system, which flooded the whole city. In Houston, various bayous present the danger of flooding in certain areas but there is no way a storm alone can disrupt the whole city life. The evacuation should have been more planned with people in flood zones instructed to evacuate first before others. Historical flood data about various zip codes is handily available to prepare an evacuation plan. I heard a certain councilmen repeating after each call during news broadcast to evacuate the city even if they were not in a flood zone. This kind of irresponsible statement was largely responsible for the chaos on the roads.

The other failure observed in New Orleans was that people were out of water and food for many days. Storm and flooding is only one form of a disaster there could be other incidents when the city life is disrupted including terrorism and dirty bombs. City should prepare a database of all major food and grocery stores and designate some of them as relief centers in case of emergency. These food stores should be provided protection by the army or local law enforcement officials. Supplies should be sent to these stores for distribution to the people.

Last, but not the least, is the behavior of the citizens. Largely, people were in good spirits and helped each other. But when it came to food supplies people were buying water and food sufficient for weeks instead of days. This created a supply shortage for others. In such difficult crisis situations, people should get a few days worth of supplies so that there is some left for others. Stores should self impose rationing of essential food supplies when the government announces a state of emergency.
Humans are incapable of commanding nature to behave in a certain manner but they are certainly capable of devising systems and procedures that ensure that humanity does not suffer from these disasters. There is no perfect system in the world; all we can hope for is to learn from each new experience and improve on it. Rita has taught us many lessons, now it is up to us to incorporate those lessons into our governance to handle the next one in a better way.


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