Beyond Katrina (Crisis Management)

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Beyond Katrina:

Improving Disaster Response Capabilities
By Arnold M. Howitt and Herman B. “Dutch” Leonard, Kennedy School of Government As Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma successively lashed the gulf coast starting in late August 2005, nature’s fury exposed serious weaknesses in the United States’ emergency response capabilities. Not all emergencies pose this magnitude of challenge. In the United States, the initial—and usually major—responsibility for disaster response rests with local authorities. This “bottom-up” system of emergency management has a long history and continues to make sense in most circumstances. Core Challenges for Large-Scale Disaster Response Quite clearly, however, the normal model was inadequate to handle the results of Katrina—and showed weakness in managing the fierce but less demanding challenges of Rita and Wilma. These shortcomings must be addressed if the country is to be ready for serious challenges that may lie ahead, whether severe natural disasters, outbreaks of emergent infectious disease, or renewed terrorist attacks. We see six core challenges. Recognizing Novelty and Effectively Improvising Necessary Responses Emergency responders ready themselves for a wide range of urgent circumstances, including hurricanes. Though quite demanding, many of these situations can be regarded as “routine” emergencies—not because they are in some sense “easy” but because the predictability of the general type of situation permits agencies to prepare in advance and take advantage of lessons from prior experience. The capacity to treat a wide range of contingencies, including quite severe ones, as “routine” constitutes an enormous source of strength for emergency response personnel and organizations. They have thought through how to act. They are equipped. They have trained and practiced. Their leaders’ judgment has been honed by experience. In moments when delay may literally make a difference of life or death, they don’t need to size up the situation for an extended period, plan their response from scratch, assemble people and resources, and divide up roles and responsibilities. Responders are “ready” in multiple dimensions of the term. Not all emergencies fit the mold. “Crises” like Katrina are distinguished from the more common (though possibly very severe) routine emergencies by significant elements of novelty. These novel features may

Arnold M. Howitt Arnold M. Howitt is Executive Director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Herman B. Leonard Herman B. “Dutch” Leonard is Professor of Public Management at the Kennedy School and Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

A. Alfred Taubman Center for State and Local Government The Taubman Center and its a liated institutes and programs are the Kennedy School of Government’s focal point for activities that address urban policy, state and local governance and intergovernmental relations. Taubman Center Policy Briefs are short overviews of new and notable research on these issues by scholars a liated with the Center. © 2006 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. The contents re ect the views of the authors (who are responsible for the facts and accuracy of the material herein) and do not represent the o cial views or policies of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government. A. Alfred Taubman Center for State and Local Government John F. Kennedy School of Government, 79 JFK St., Cambridge, MA 02138 Telephone: (617) 495-2199 Email: taubman@ksg.harvard.edu www.ksg.harvard.edu/taubmancenter

Beyond Katrina: Improving Disaster Response Capabilities

TAUBMAN CENTER

POLIC Y BRIEFS

result from threats never before encountered (e.g., an earthquake in an area that has not experienced one in recent memory or an emergent infectious disease like SARS or avian flu); or...
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