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Friday, April 18, 2008

As agile and responsive as the world in which we live

In early 2006, the US House of Representatives weighed in with their assessment of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Their report, "Failure of Initiative," came out too early to be able to discuss the engineering specifics but was nevertheless a thoughtful look at the big picture issues.

The major take-away for me was this statement:

"Officials at all levels seemed to be waiting for the disaster that fit their plans, rather than planning and building scalable capacities to meet whatever Mother Nature threw at them. We again encountered the risk-averse culture that pervades big government, and again recognized the need for organizations as agile and responsive as the 21st century world in which we live."

(From the Report by the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina, http://katrina.house.gov/)

Two big ideas there.

First, since when does Nature play by our rules? She does not, so anyone who plans for a specific scenario and ignores all other scenarios is planning a catastrophe.

And second, you don't avoid risk by ignoring it. You can pretend that there is no risk, but all you're doing is pretending.

When I read the report about two years ago, I immediately copied down that quote and kept it close. I like to remind myself of those two big ideas from time to time, and I hope it helps keep my guard up.

But then recently I gained a new insight. This statement, written to chastise government agencies and functionaries, has much broader application. Could not almost the same be said of many rank-and-file citizens?

Because surely, if we rebuild our houses at exactly the so-called 100-year flood elevation and not one inch higher, if we refuse to even consider raising our homes and simply repair them where they are, regardless of the reality that there recently was 6 or 8 or 10 feet of water in them, are we not guilty of the same poor habits the congressional report excoriates?

And if we rebuild New Orleans and the surrounding communities in exactly the same way, refusing even to consider doing anything differently, rejecting all attempts at improvement, and fail to take advantage of this opportunity to change things, what will be said about the citizens of New Orleans if (when) the city floods again?

We may very well find ourselves accused of "Failure of Initiative."

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