Disasters by Damage Control or Risk Management?

Watching the news grabs and reading about the Haiti disaster highlights to me the vast, tragic human cost of such disasters and leaves me asking the question what could have been done better?


The importance of preparing, planning and acting to minimise the human cost of such events is important, however it does cost resources. In a country like Haiti…

Watching the news grabs and reading about the Haiti disaster highlights to me the vast, tragic human cost of such disasters and leaves me asking the question what could have been done better?


The importance of preparing, planning and acting to minimise the human cost of such events is important, however it does cost resources. In a country like Haiti, the economic situation would suggest disaster planning and risk mitigation for disaster events are a low priority as compared to simply finding enough food, water, shelter, medicine and infrastructure to keep its people sustained.


However, Western nations with stronger financial positions appear to see disaster planning as a pastime rather than a passion. Numerous catastrophes post 9/11 would suggest that the power to pre-empt and act prior to events or mitigate disasters before they reach their full potential would seem to be inadequate. Could we have managed better in disasters such as the Canberra Bushfires in 2003, the infamous Asia Pacific Tsunami of 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Cyclone Larry in 2006, Californian Wildfires in 2007, and Black Saturday fires in 2009?


So what comprises the concept or event that is a disaster and what precipitates it? It’s all about understanding risks that form the disaster and taking actions to mitigate these risks through strong leadership and command and control. Without insight into what comprises the disaster and being able to measure it, they can only occur with little or fragmented mitigation. Continuity Central describes “…disaster recovery and business continuity as a holistic approach is changing…from business continuity planning being an option to being mandatory.”


In the project context, tasks form activities, activities form projects and projects form programs or campaigns. Disasters are also systemic; the likelihood of all of the “moving parts” occurring in the critical path to make the disaster happen. Like projects, disasters have milestones that indicate their progress and trigger other risks in a sequence that form the disaster. These are the indicators and measures that enable organisations and individuals to track if a potential disaster is now more likely, mitigated or no longer possible. This may sound simple, however it is understanding and measuring causes at the micro level and understanding the broader effect on a macro scale.


When an event occurs it is generally because no-one could see it coming or the risks were apparent could not be seen as a sum of the parts to form the disaster concept. Once it has happened it would seem that responding without a plan is even worse than the former. You need relevant data to inform actions that matter. Without clear command and control of a situation, business continuity and disaster recovery can only occur with good luck. The disaster itself is a series of things, risks that have achieved a milestone that conglomerate with other risks to complete the devastation. If the risks that form the basis of the event are identified and understood, action can be taken to mitigate or remove the next sequence of risks on the critical path. Again, you need to know what is important, have near-to-real-time access to this information and have a model that provides a decision-support basis for accountable and empowered people to act.


The Hurricane Katrina disaster exemplifies this point. It was impossible for the US Government to stop Hurricane Katrina itself, however, the response could have been more decisive by understanding what would continue to unfold without a final evacuation. On the human side, which is most important, the inalienable human rights to water, food, air, care, hygiene and shelter are the basis for all action. While responses were made to these basic needs, they were mitigations rather than resolutions. They prolonged the goal of a relocation of those affected, leaving them in the heart of New Orleans and the disaster area. Timely acquisition of buses to evacuate the remaining citizens in New Orleans was the intent. This simply did not happen.

The San Francisco Chronicle quotes former FEMA head Michael Brown as saying “It was beyond the capacity of the state and local governments, and it was beyond the capacity of FEMA,” To me, this highlights flaws in planning through to taking action, including Brown’s admission that he “should have demanded the military sooner” to assist in the response as the authorities in charge were responsible but not in control of the situation..

Instead of as decisive response, actions were taken to cordon-off the city and extend the time people were camped out in the stadium and convention centre – where the human side of the disaster unfolded further. Violence and looting ensued as desperation took hold and the disaster became complete. This was a damage control response, acting on what did happen without understanding exactly what created the situation and what was needed to resolve it.

The City of New Orleans needed a plan in the event of multiple disasters including a Hurricane. Early warning systems that provide off-shore data on Hurricane-like conditions, the city’s topography and its high risk of flooding, the number of civilians in potential flood zones at various elevations to work out the magnitude of disaster scenarios could have helped model and understand what needs to be planned and what needs to happen if a disaster event occurs.

Disasters are not just about governments and nations nor are they only about natural disasters. In the wake of 9/11 or Katrina, many organisations were challenged by disaster recovery resulting from a terrorist attack. Those without such preparations and insight suffered massive financial loss and, in some cases ceased to exist. Had they had the right information at the right time to act before and after to find the best path to recovery, they may have continued in profitable business. I would argue that in disaster there is opportunity. The retailer, service provider or bank that resumes service quickest will be most profitable in meeting immediate demand and may have a long-term advantage and trust with customers, being there when they are needed the most.

I would like to hear from organisations that are looking at disaster planning, business continuity planning, disaster recovery and discuss the capabilities needed to do this effectively. While we hope disaster never comes, we have to plan that if it does, we will then have the right information and plans to know what happened, what needs to happen and act.

David Bremstaller