The impacts surrounding the coronavirus, coupled with a significant earthquake, have me thinking back to a dark period. In New Orleans in 2005, I watched a piece of American civilization fall into confusion, the city half-destroyed (and my own house looted). But I was lucky, with “only” about $40,000 in damage from floodwaters.
This was the Katrina disaster and its aftermath, and I watched it from the front row, working at a public policy organization whose organizational output for several years essentially became about one topic: how to recover from a disaster.
The earthquake and the coronavirus have not visited upon Utah anything approaching the damage inflicted by the levee breaches in New Orleans. But there are lessons we can take away regardless as we grapple with crisis situations and armor up against future disasters.
First, leadership matters. Both in the immediate response to Katrina and in the aftermath, there were significant leadership failures at the federal, state and local levels. The ability to provide clear direction and the willingness to take responsibility are critical qualities for leadership during a crisis.
Along similar lines, coordination and prioritization are crucial. Following Katrina, the state of Louisiana launched a post-disaster planning effort, the mayor of New Orleans launched his own effort, the City Council launched its own, and private civic leaders responded to the chaos and incoherence by launching still another. Out-of-state organizations parachuted in to push their pet projects and added to the cacophony. Ultimately, there was a lack of rational prioritization in the resulting planning documents. From the public policy perspective, decision-making was impaired. From the public’s perspective, there was just noise.
But citizen responses have their own momentum. Due in part to the failures in leadership and planning after Katrina, individual citizens lost confidence in government and banded together to chart their own destinies. Neighborhood groups became more important than ever. In the end, the decisions that individuals made drove the future. While there is always a vital role for government to play, the extent to which citizens and community groups can fill the gaps is pivotal.
And the gaps will change rapidly. It’s important to gather data on needs and gaps on an ongoing basis to help set priorities. The needs in the first week of a crisis will differ significantly from the second week, the sixth week, and so on. The issues will range from outward economic issues to inward issues. While I know a number of people who became more heroic (and less attached to material things) after Katrina, I also saw marriages destroyed and people descending into drinking and depression.
It’s a cliché to say that crisis and opportunity go together, but there is truth to the notion. When the weaknesses in a system are revealed by a crisis, the proper response is to become more resilient by addressing those weaknesses. But a crisis also can have a tabula rasa effect; in New Orleans, Katrina opened the way for major reforms in arenas ranging from public education to government contracting to urban planning.
Just as there are opportunities in a time of crisis, there may also be opportunists. These range from special interest groups using the crisis to push agendas to profiteers seeking to manipulate policy to enrich themselves to those taking advantage of the vulnerable. In Louisiana, more than a few businesspeople and public officials went to jail for crossing legal lines in the Katrina aftermath.
Finally, policies that seem sensible in an air-conditioned office in Washington, D.C., might not work well in the heat of reality during a crisis. New Orleans still languishes with incomplete projects designated for FEMA funding from a disaster that occurred nearly 15 years ago. It is important for government to ensure it has in place competent administrators and consultants able to help navigate through red tape and ensure effective, energetic responses.
Utah prides itself on preparedness. How we respond to a crisis, from our leaders on down to average citizens, will help us to determine whether that pride is well-placed. Indeed, how we respond may even define us.
Peter Reichard is president of Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research organization. Reach him at [email protected].