Larry C. Johnson

Getting a grip on the crisis response operation in Louisiana and Mississippi is analogous to trying to manage three women who are told to share the same kitchen to cook for their respective families. As someone who lived through the experience of trying to keep peace when women from two different families had to share a kitchen in one house believe me, it ain’t easy. The key to success is a clear chain of command and precise definitions of who can do what and when they can do it. Those lessons learned on the small scale of managing conflict in the kitchen would serve us well in the massive effort required to recover from Katrina.

Before I get lambasted as a sexist pig or as someone trivializing the horror underway along the Gulf Coast, let me reassure you that I am only trying to put the management challenge of Katrina in terms the average person can understand. When you throw Federal, State, local, and private authorities together to manage the rescue and recovery operation along the Gulf Coast you are putting people with competing interests, who are each trying to do what they think is best, on a path of conflict unless there are clear and precise chains of command. The failure to clarify who is in charge leads to conflict, duplication of effort, and wasted resources.

Take what happened yesterday, for example. The 82nd Airborne is providing security in one sector of New Orleans. They are recently returned from Iraq and are no nonsense when it comes to security. They were stopping Louisiana State Police, who were in uniform and clearly marked vehicles, and prohibiting them from transiting the sector the Army was guarding. Needless to say this did not create warm fuzzy feelings between the Police and the Army. In fact, senior Police and Military officials had to spend time yesterday sorting out this issue rather than dealing with rescue and recovery.

It is both frightening and ironic that the rescue and recovery operation in New Orleans in particular and Louisiana in general has been so ragged. With the exception of New York City, Louisiana had more experience dealing with multiple jurisdiction crisis incidents, particularly chemical spills and industrial fires, than any other region in the country. The plethora of petroleum and chemical facilities in the area, coupled with railroad, port, and highway transportation hubs, routinely confronted State and local authorities with the duty of cooperating to put out a fire, control the leak from an over turned chlorine tank, or evacuate an area threatened by a toxic cloud.

Admittedly the scale and scope of the destruction the Federal, State, and local authorities now confront is without precedent. At least 50 oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico have disappeared completely. There are over 100 boats sunk in the Mississippi River that are obstructing river traffic. Chemical storage tanks have been breached and there is a growing risk of spontaneous explosions in undamaged pipelines and storage tanks as hindering agents degrade with the passage of time.

Once the process of clean up and restoration is well underway there needs to be a serious "hotwash" aka after action review. Friends of mine on scene are scratching their heads about a variety of issues. For example, one experienced hand called the Operations Center the day after the hurricane and recommended that helicopters capable of dropping water to put out fires be prepositioned. His recommendation was rejected initially. Once the fires broke out, however, the urgent request for helicopters was issued.

Other hotwash issues (in no order of importance):

1. Pet Rescue–Many people still in New Orleans refused to leave their homes because they would not abandon their pets. FEMA prohibited evacuees from bringing out their pets. Once the media is on scene showing images of shivering dogs stranded on car roofs pet lovers around the world demand action. Accordingly, many of the resuce forces are currently going after starving and thirsty animals. Next go round, ensure that there is a system in place to evacuate pets as well. It could be a logistics nightmare but I doubt it could be any worse than having to track down folks hiding in flooded neighborhoods 8 days after the hurricane.

2. The Debacle at the Dome and Convention Center–the failure of Federal, State, and local authorities to provide basic services to those who sought refuge have friends of mine in Louisiana scratching their heads. No one seized the initiative in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane to provide food, water, sanitation, and security. Leaving thousands of Americans to stew in their waste is inexcusable. Two key questions need to be answered: 1) why did the State and Local evacutation plan fail to move these residents to a site where their needs could be met? and 2) why did Federal planners on scene at the Louisiana Crisis Operations Center fail to intervene or call upon expedient resources?

There is a slight silver lining in the black cloud hanging over the Gulf. The people currently involved in the operation are learning things that can’t learn through books or exercises. If we capture the lessons learned then we will be better prepared to deal with future tragedies. If not, we will repeat the past and more Americans will die. "

Actually, Larry IS a sexist pig but manages to conceal it most of the time.

Pat Lang

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  1. b says:

    If we capture the lessons learned then we will be better prepared to deal with future tragedies.
    So where are the people who learned the lessons after Andrew?
    i guess right there where the people who leaned the lesson after Katrina wil be when the next one hits.
    Not to be found.

  2. J Thomas says:

    A lot of the people who learned from Andrew are probably chewing their nails because they have no authority to apply what they know.

  3. Diana says:

    “The key to success is a clear chain of command and precise definitions of who can do what and when they can do it.”
    Sure, but all along the way you must have intelligent, rational and just people staffing positions. And at the top you need a Leader who is intelligent, rational and just.
    What we have are demoralized troops, some of them first-rate, led by idiots and toadies. The man at the top is hopeless. He should be impeached immediately. Even if that means Cheney as President–at least it would signal to the world that we haven’t completely lost the idea of accountability.
    The Administration (the Prez and his Cabinet, who set the tone for everything) is good at one thing and one thing only: terrorizing its opponents into submission. Facts don’t matter. If you don’t tell ’em what they want to hear, you get “disappeared.”
    Any functioning unit, even one as hierarchical as an army, has to have the ability for information to flow upwards. In order for that to happen you can’t be frightened that if you say something the guys upstairs don’t want to hear, you’ll be fired.
    Did Eisenhower terrorize his subordinate officers, or did he listen to their counsel?

  4. Pat Lang says:

    You have it right. In any good military organization information flows in both directions and a smart commander insists that people inform him fully before he makes decisions and during execution. Are they all smart? No, but the successful ones generally are.
    You are right about the Bush people. This is not like working for Marcus Aurelius. Suggest your own emperor for an analog.
    From listening to the security forces presser in NO a few minutes ago it seems that there is still no unity of command. They continue to talk about “coordinating” all these groups.
    Who is to blame? you tell me. pl

  5. Diana says:

    “Who is to blame? you tell me. pl”
    George Walker Bush. But what do I know? I’m just a lowly pawn.

  6. Diana says:

    PS that said, even a pawn can checkmate a king….

  7. RJJ says:

    Apparently the Deus ex Machina concession was awarded to a Halliburton subsidiary right after the 2000 election.

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