I'm in Birmingham this weekend, attending the series of events for "Restoring Unity." It's been a fantastic experience, and I hope to share some thoughts about it with you in the coming days.
Last night before going to sleep, I read this piece in Politico by former FEMA director Michael Brown entited, "Stop Blaming Me For Hurricane Katrina." Being a self-authored account of his performance on the anniversary of the massive storm that killed hundreds of people (and having never read anything written by Brown before), my skepticism detector signaled that the article might not really give us an objective picture of his actions during that horrific storm.
Now having read the article, I urge anyone who studies preparedness, public administration and organizational behavior to read it and share with others.
Brown is very objective, citing a number of mistakes he made in the process. Some of the ones he cited include:
He's also critical of a number of people as you might imagine. He reserves some of his harshest criticism for Michael Chertoff, the secretary for the Department of Homeland Security at the time. In Pivot Points, I cite Chertoff's comments about Katrina as a reason people are skeptical about the government's ability to prepare for disasters:
“[We assumed that] there would be overflow from the levee, maybe a small break in the levee. The collapse of a significant portion of the levee leading to the very fast flooding of the city was not envisioned.”
Yet such a breach had been predicted and the results of such a breach extensively analyzed by the New Orleans Times-Picayune and others long before Hurricane Katrina.
There's a lot for us to glean from the Politico article, but I do want to share one paragraph from it that we as citizens and preparedness advocates should hear and share with others:
"The American public needs to learn not to rely on the government to save them when a crisis hits. The larger the disaster, the less likely the government will be capable of helping any given individual. We simply do not have the manpower to help everyone. Firefighters and rescue workers would all agree the true first responders are individual citizens who take care of themselves."
Regardless of what you think of Michael Brown and FEMA then or now, we are regularly reminded of the agency's limitations after every large disaster. You'll recall that the agency took some grief for being closed "due to weather" after Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast in 2012. I don't point that out to be critical of FEMA, but rather as evidence that our main federal disaster relief agency cannot rescue every disaster victim in short order, hand them some FEMA debit cards and rebuild their house in a matter of hours. At the end of the day, we need to be ready to be those "true first responders who take care of ourselves" as Brown indicates.
Furthermore, in your preparedness efforts - as well as your daily and work life - do you apply this level of scrutiny when evaluating your own performance? It takes a tremendous amount of character, in my opinion, to come out and admit your mistakes, especially given the impact those mistakes had on the situation after Katrina.
No doubt many will continue to criticize Brown as part of a "I hate Bush, and Brown worked for Bush, and Katrina was a mess" mantra. I don't know about you, but I cannot claim to have never made a mistake in my professional career. Insisting on perfection from anyone is simply unrealistic.
Are you prepared to be your own first responder as Brown suggests? And are you objective in evaluating the weaknesses in your preparedness plan?
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