US disaster response planning seems to assume that victims are helpless, hapless and hostile obstacles to the imposition of order on chaos. But should governments instead design for emergence in times of emergency?
Dave Pollard has a sobering post at “How to Save the World” about the inevitable incompetence of disaster response planning. Like a catastrophic earthquake in San Francisco, a devastating hurricane in New Orleans was not even a statistically improbable event—in fact, officials and citizens alike knew it was literally a disaster waiting to happen. Nevertheless, as real-time news coverage illustrated and post-mortem analysis confirmed, the most powerful nation on earth couldn’t handle the most predictable possible natural disaster, “despite” having recently reorganized the entire federal government to create a massive bureaucracy dedicated to the single promise of securing the homeland.
It’s interesting to contrast the failure of institutional planning in emergencies to the success of bystander reactions in terms of self-organized teamwork.
The President’s own investigation was bad enough: The awe that viewers held for the sheer ferocity of nature was soon matched with disappointment and frustration at the seeming inability of the “government”—local, State, and Federal—to respond effectively to the crisis. Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent sustained flooding of New Orleans exposed significant flaws in Federal, State, and local preparedness for catastrophic events and our capacity to respond to them. Emergency plans at all levels of government, from small town plans to the 600-page National Response Plan—the Federal government’s plan to coordinate all its departments and agencies and integrate them with State, local, and private sector partners—were put to the ultimate test, and came up short. (The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons learned, (Feb. 2006)
I think Dave Pollard is right to blame the system. But it’s not just “The System” It’s any system.
Dave says: In every crisis right back to the Great Depression, most of the responses of governments and other large institutions, public and private, have only made the problems worse. We need to create local, community-based emergency preparedness plans and training, and community-based systems that have the resilience to cope with crises effectively. And we need to get over our ‘learned helplessness’ that leads us to believe that, in the case of a crisis, the government will tell us what to do. This helplessness, and governments’ fraudulent claims to be prepared for crises, are not only unhelpful, they’re dangerous.
But in almost every disaster, including Katrina, it's the amateur efforts that often make the difference. In “Learning from the Earthquake” (Spring 1990) Stewart Brand recalls pulling over and pitching in when Loma Prieta earthquake brought down the Marina District in San Francisco at 5:04 p.m. on October 17, 1989. He one of many volunteer rescuers, that night. In fact, volunteers outnumbered professionals three-to-one.
A little before 6 p.m… I was approached by the first uniformed policeman I’d seen amid the earthquake rubble, smoke, and chaos at Divisadero and Beach in the Marina. “You’ll have to clear out,” he said firmly. “I’ve been working here for an hour,” I told him. He veered off.
That reversal of authority was being played out, with varying degrees of grace, all over the area of northern California shaken by the 7.1 earthquake. Amateur rescuers on the scene acquired instant expertise. Professionals often proved to be poorly prepared for the scale of the disaster. Everyone was improvising.
…A real rescue is dreamy and hesitant, full of false starts and conflicting ideas, at times frantic and focussed, at times diffuse. It is a self-organizing process, neither quick nor tidy, but it proved to be effective all over the Marina that night.
Most people keep driving when they see an accident on the highway, but notice that there are always enough people who do stop. Rarely do any of these Samaritans have any special training for it, nor is there any task assignment list in the glove box. But someone directs traffic, someone calls 911, someone checks the drivers and passengers. Someone takes charge. Emergent teamwork, emergent leadership, emergent citizenship.
On a different scale, William Langewiesche wrote about the recovery effort that self-organized after the destruction of the World Trade Centers in American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center.
As summarized by Paul McLeary in this review: On the morning of the attacks, an obscure city department called the Department of Design and Construction (DDC), which had been created in 1996 by Guiliani to oversee the repair of sidewalks, sewers and municipal infrastructure, rose up to take the lead in the cleanup effort. This was as big a surprise to Kenneth Holden, the head of the department and his lieutenant, Michael Burton, the men who would direct much of the cleanup, as it was to everyone else. They simply happened to be near city hall that morning for a meeting, and not being able to find anyone else willing to begin sorting things out, took it upon themselves to start arranging for the transport of lights, machinery and men down to the site by time darkness fell on the first night. They would continue to head the project until the very end, much of the time coordinating the efforts from a hastily slapped together command center in a kindergarten classroom at PS 89, just a few blocks away. According to Langewiesche’s account, this “chaotic, free-for-all nature of the emergency response ... was also its genius and strength.” Things had to get done, and if that meant some creative freelancing by the construction companies, so be it. The workers were given the responsibility and rose to the occasion.
But my favorite example was the virtual collaboration that self-organized in 2004 to create the South East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog. Instigated by Dina Mehta, it was a spontaneous mobilization of global volunteers to create the using simple social tools and groupware technologies (mostly free). Launched the very day of the disaster with news and information about aid, donations and relief efforts, within 72 hours it had received 100,000 visitors and within eight days, it had reached over one million.
What would an “enlightened government” do? How would it take human behavior into account? How could it design for emergence?