Katrina, One Year Later: What Have We Learned?

Katrina, One Year Later: What Have We Learned?

Some anniversaries are decidedly inauspicious but must be observed anyway. Such is the case with Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast a year ago, killing more than 1,600 people and causing economic losses approaching $140 billion in a region that could ill afford them.

Countless articles and public discussions have focused on the failures of, and lessons to be learned from, FEMA and the American Red Cross' response to the storm. But time and reflection also have provided lessons for the rest of us, whether policy makers, donors, or citizens. Two lessons, especially, are worth noting.

First, in massive disasters such as Katrina or the Indian Ocean tsunami, traditional responders cannot succeed alone. Everyone government, nonprofits, business, and the military has a role to play. If we are smart, not only will we make room for all these actors, we will work to maximize the advantages each has to offer.

Each kind of responder in a disaster has its strengths and weaknesses, based on things like charter, mission, regulation, and governance. The key is to figure out how to leverage those strengths and minimize weaknesses, and then deploy a response based on that analysis. In the massive disasters of the past few years, however, as the number and variety of responders has grown, the knee-jerk response has been to circle the wagons, to suggest that we need fewer kinds of responders.

After Katrina, for example, some pundits called for expanding the role of the military in disaster response, based on its demonstrated competence in command and control and mobilizing resources. At the same time, the media celebrated entrepreneurial citizens who packed their bags and relocated to the Gulf to help. On the other hand, after the Indian Ocean tsunami, military involvement was a problem in Sri Lanka because of the ongoing conflict between the government and the Tamil Tigers. Moreover, experienced humanitarian aid NGOs expressed frustration at the "guys with generators" people who started their own funds, organizations, and/or projects and, with little knowledge of or experience in the region, jumped into the fray. The results, in many cases, were predictable.

The fact is, sometimes, as with Katrina or Hurricane Mitch in 1998, the military's hierarchical command and control structure and ability to respond quickly is invaluable. But when disasters strike in conflict zones (or are caused by conflict), neutrality and impartiality must take precedence. Military bodies in conflict practice neither; nor, often, do governments.

Similarly, sometimes, as with Katrina, local organizations with no experience in disaster response such as churches or small businesses become critical first responders. Yet large, professional relief and development agencies with experience in complex logistical situations and a track record of adhering to professional standards and best practices are also critical. And in the middle of it all, governments and businesses often are the best positioned to mobilize the cash and other resources that are so crucial in mounting an effective rescue and relief effort.

Which leads to the second lesson: We must rethink how we allocate resources for disaster response. Earlier this summer, the Aspen Institute produced a post-Katrina report called Weathering the Storm that, among other things, makes the case for investing in disaster preparedness and coordination at the federal, state, and local level; shifting the locus of disaster giving to the local level; and doing more to support the general-operating expenses of organizations that innovate in response to immediate needs. Meanwhile, a handful of people at Harvard have started to develop a comparative-advantage framework for responders, which requires an investment in research. But it needs to happen across institutions on a broader scale.

Second, these changes require a greater tolerance for risk on the part of funders. Improving our ability as a country to prepare for and respond to disasters necessarily means investing in experimentation, as well as unproven organizations and approaches. That's a critical component of innovation. In addition, providing flexible general-operating support especially after the fact means letting go of the security that comes with investing in narrowly defined if well established programs. It also means surrendering more control over the use of donated funds.

Hurricane Katrina shook the country to its core. In its wake, we have begun to rethink everything from the nature of the social contract to whom we can trust in times of crisis. The one-year anniversary of the storm calls us to reflection yet again. We should also use this opportunity to rethink the essential questions of who responds, and how we support them. Let us hope that, as a result of our reflection, we get it right the next time.

Tiziana Dearing is the executive director of the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, where her research areas of interest include humanitarian relief and operations, the nature of public obligation, and the functioning and governance of the Catholic Church as a nonprofit organization.