Thursday, January 18th, 2018

A Tale of Two Outcomes


Charleston, South Carolina, and New Orleans, Louisiana, are similar in many ways. Both are beautiful cities with rich histories and famed for their distinctive brands of southern Gothic charm. Both are coastal cities situated at the intersection of major freshwater river systems, one on the Atlantic Ocean, the other on the Gulf Coast. Like many coastal communities, both Charleston and New Orleans enjoy the numerous benefits that come from proximity to the water, including diverse economies with long histories of industrial innovation, fishing industries that supplied them and their wider regions, and tourism industries that have successfully capitalized on their coastal identities and cultural heritage. The two also share one important and potentially devastating characteristic: Like other towns along the southeastern coast of the United States, Charleston and New Orleans are exposed to potentially catastrophic damage from hurricanes.

Late on September 21, 1989, a formerly Category 5 hurricane, Hugo, slammed into the South Carolina coast with winds of over 135 mph and an unprecedented storm surge. To this day, Hugo remains the second most intense storm to strike the Atlantic coast.

In an eerily similar scenario, on the morning of August 29, 2005, a previous Category 5 hurricane, Katrina, struck the Louisiana coast with winds of over 125 mph and an unprecedented storm surge. Katrina remains the fifth most intense hurricane to strike the Atlantic Coast of the US and is currently the costliest storm in US history.

Perhaps the most appalling similarity is the response to both events of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Following Hugo, then-U.S. Sen. Ernest ‘Fritz’ Hollings of South Carolina called the agency ‘the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I’ve ever worked with.’  And of course FEMA’s complete failure following Katrina is still fresh in the minds of most Americans, particularly those along the Gulf Coast.

Shortly after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the Birmingham News reported on the similarities of this poor federal response, noting, “After the storm smashed into Charleston on Sept. 21, 1989, it took the Federal Emergency Management Agency ten days to open its first disaster application center in the city. There were tens of thousands of claims and too few FEMA workers to handle the crunch.”

But this is where comparisons of Charlestown after Hugo and New Orleans after Katrina come to a screeching halt, because although New Orleans experienced far greater damage as a result of its failed levees, it was the anticipation, preparation and response of these two cities, as well as the state governments of South Carolina and Louisiana, that were tragically different and have had lasting implications for all involved.

Zoomers see all events as conditions. They look at the situation from the 30,000-foot perspective, devise a course of action, take action and adjust course as necessary to adapt to current conditions and prepare for future (emerging) conditions. Their goal is always forward progress. Linear thinkers, by contrast, tend to see events – especially catastrophic events – as isolated, external singularities, as something happening to them. This is a key distinction, because if events are just conditional changes in the systems we inhabit as complex adaptive beings, then we have the capability to adapt and flow with those conditions. If events are seen as something outside of us, then we can tend to see ourselves as helpless victims.

As Hurricane Hugo approached Charleston, long-serving Mayor Joseph Riley understood this thinking at a core level. For years, Riley had been preparing his staff for the possibility of just this emerging condition. A detailed yet flexible plan had been devised to deal with the impact of a major hurricane, and the plan put a premium on finding opportunities in the chaos to propel the city forward. Riley had considered the emerging condition of Hugo much as a general considers his attack on an enemy position. He divided the City into three sectors and pre-positioned key personnel and equipment in each sector, with orders to be ready to mobilize once the storm had passed. The aftermath was characterized by a volley of decisions and acts that nearly matched the intensity of the storm itself, as plans were constantly assessed and adjusted to suit emerging conditions.

In the years since, Mayor Riley has often testified that he was continuously pushing his people to their limits, setting goals and demanding that those goals be surpassed. Everything had to be better, get done faster and the people had to be apprised of progress at every stage. The result was that Charleston’s rebound from Hugo exhibited resilience the way Zoomers use the word. Charleston didn’t just return to its former state, but emerged better and stronger than it had been before Hugo.  Mayor Riley believes that in many ways, Charleston is today far ahead of where it might have been had the storm never struck. That is due in large part to the city’s systems-based approach to rapidly changing conditions and an insistence on seeing opportunities, no matter how dire the situation seemed.

New Orleans, as we know, was a much different story. While failure of the levees certainly added a major destructive element that Charleston did not have to face, many knew that it was only a matter of time before a major hurricane hit New Orleans. And they knew that in all likelihood the levees would not survive a direct hit by a serious storm.  In retrospect, while the federal response in both cities was grossly inadequate, the City of New Orleans and the State of Louisiana seemed even less prepared to deal with Katrina than the federal government.

Sadly, there was no Mayor Riley in New Orleans. Instead, The Crescent City, under the ‘leadership’ of Mayor Ray Nagin, not only failed to adequately prepare New Orleans for the disaster, but in the storm’s aftermath showed a total inability to zoom.  Many of the basic human services that took only weeks to be restored in Charleston were still not operative in parts of New Orleans months and even years later. Where Charleston thrived in the aftermath of catastrophe, New Orleans foundered, and for a while serious people even considered the possibility of a future without a City of New Orleans. Now, years after the storm, media accounts leading up to the New Orleans Saints Super Bowl victory in 2010 still focused on remaining problems left by Katrina and referred to the city and its people as victims of Katrina.

So, how could New Orleans have been better prepared? To answer that question, consider what might have happened if Mayor Nagin and others there had viewed the potential aftermath of a major hurricane as an opportunity? How might the population have responded if a military-like approach to recovery and rebuilding had been planned and executed with precision and force, where fast was not fast enough and better was not good enough? The complexity of these two scenarios and their inherent differences makes it too difficult to draw any firm conclusions or answers to these questions. But we should not forget that Hugo had hit Charlestown 16 years prior to the Katrina event in New Orleans. That’s 16 years of lessons not learned or simply ignored by responsible authorities in the federal government, the City of New Orleans and the State of Louisiana. If the right people had taken the wider view – if there had been a Zoomer like Riley in a position to make a difference – the preparation, recovery and rebuilding of New Orleans might have been very different.

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