I’ve now read key sections of the House Select Committee report on Katrina. I’ll be commenting on it in more detail over the next few days, but my initial reaction is that is an excellent report, and an important contribution to the current efforts to improve disaster response. It’s also an admirably radical report in its observations about response systems today. These five paragraphs are, for me, the core thesis of the report:
The preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina show we are still an analog government in a digital age. We must recognize that we are woefully incapable of storing, moving, and accessing information â€“ especially in times of crisis.
Many of the problems we have identified can be categorized as â€œinformation gapsâ€ â€“ or at least problems with information-related implications, or failures to act decisively because information was sketchy at best. Better information would have been an optimal weapon against Katrina. Information sent to the right people at the right place at the right time. Information moved within agencies, across departments, and between jurisdictions of government as well. Seamlessly. Securely. Efficiently.
Unfortunately, no government does these things well, especially big governments.
The federal government is the largest purchaser of information technology in the world, by far. One would think we could share information by now. But Katrina again proved we cannot.
We reflect on the 9/11 Commissionâ€™s finding that â€œthe most important failure was one of imagination.â€ The Select Committee believes Katrina was primarily a failure of initiative. But there is, of course, a nexus between the two. Both imagination and initiative â€“ in other words, leadership â€“ require good information. And a coordinated process for sharing it. And a willingness to use information â€“ however imperfect or incomplete â€“ to fuel action.
However, it doesn’t appear that the report translates this radical diagnosis into equally radical recommendations about how we transform the system. Hopefully we will see innovative ideas from Congress, think tanks, the private sector, academia (and heck, maybe even blogs) in the coming months that respond to this report and address how we make our response systems and cultures more effective and entrepreneurial. (Readers are encouraged to let me know about good existing reports that fit this description).
One final comment for this initial post: Based on what I’ve read so far, the report is very well-written. It doesn’t assume prior knowledge of the Stafford Act and the acronym soup of the emergency management field, and it does a good job of explaining all of these things in context without becoming overly simplistic in its analysis. Kudos to the committee members and staffers for their conscious efforts to make this report accessible to a general readership.