Three Lessons in Emergency Management from Someone Who Did It Well

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Utpal Sandesara and Thomas Wooten are the authors of "No One Had a Tongue to Speak: The Untold Story of One of History's Deadliest Floods."

One of the most famous images from Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath lacks any of the visual tropes typically associated with the disaster.  No roofs protrude from a sea of water, and no lines of beleaguered survivors wait in vain for help to arrive.  Yet in its own way, the photograph conveys one of the tragedy’s strongest truths.  A commander-in-chief, bathed in warm sunlight and swaddled in the luxury of his leather-upholstered cabin, peers out the window as his jet takes a low pass over the City that Care Forgot.

The Bush administration's bungled rescue and relief efforts on the Gulf Coast, typified by the aloofness captured in this photograph, highlight an enduring pattern.  Governing politicians often fail to respond adequately and appropriately to landscape-scale disasters.  This trend prevails against diverse backdrops, from the squalor of Port-au-Prince, Haiti to the developed comfort of coastal Japan.  Despite the administrative and technological advances of the past century, political leaders time and again bungle their responses to natural calamities.

In order to aid in what is surely a daunting challenge, we propose a turn to the past. History is replete with chronicles of inadequate disaster responses, but much can be learned from rare outliers—cases in which leading political figures swiftly and effectively addressed the consequences of catastrophe. For instance, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s 2008 reaction to the Great Sichuan Earthquake has been widely lauded for its speed and sincerity.

Our research, which culminated in the recently published book No One Had a Tongue to Speak, introduced us to another such example.  On August 11, 1979, the Machhu Dam-II collapsed in the western Indian state of Gujarat, unleashing a wall of water that became one of history’s deadliest flash floods.  Just as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built and maintained the inadequate levees that gave way in New Orleans, the state government was hardly blameless in this Indian catastrophe.  It had constructed an inadequately designed dam and then failed to warn those downstream of the impending collapse.  But the leadership displayed in the flood’s aftermath by the state’s leader—an old Gandhian named Babubhai Patel—provides three lessons that public figures could stand to study and emulate for decades to come.

First, leaders must remember that they become de facto emotional and moral trendsetters the moment a crisis begins to unfold, and that their reactions to a disaster—important as much for their symbolism as for their logistical ramifications— profoundly shape the public and governmental response.  Babubhai Patel's calm, decisive actions in the wake of the Machhu dam disaster made relief and recovery operations the overriding priority.  He was in a routine meeting when a telephone call interrupted with disturbing news—floodwaters had destroyed the industrial city of Morbi, and many deaths were feared.  Little other information was available, but Patel wasted no time.  In a hastily prepared radio broadcast, he informed the public of the disaster, guaranteed that aid to flood victims would be his administration’s chief concern, and urged listeners to contribute their own assistance.  “This is not the problem of Morbi,” he declared, "but the problem of Gujarat.  We should help.  It is our duty.”

After dispatching convoys of supplies and workers to the affected area, Patel set out for Morbi himself, arriving early the next morning.  Upon seeing the destruction firsthand, he decided to relocate his cabinet to Morbi in order to show solidarity with the flood’s victims.  Every day for the next month, he would walk the city's streets, visit families, and serve meals at relief kitchens.  His presence reassured the city’s populace and emphatically restated the government’s public commitment to recovery.

While in Morbi, Patel was able to serve in this highly visible symbolic role because of his thoughtful and purposeful delegation of power, which brings us to our second lesson:  coordinating a disaster response is a formidable technical task beyond the capacity of most elected officials.  Political leaders facing crises must find the most qualified personnel to organize relief and recovery efforts, grant those individuals the leeway needed to undertake their work, and demand full accountability for results.

Within hours of learning about the disaster,Patel appointed a veteran civil servant named H.K. Khan to fill a specially created cabinet-level flood relief post, guaranteeing him unwavering support.  By the next day, Khan had set up a large office in downtown Morbi, where government staff and NGOs coordinated everything from mud removal to emergency cholera vaccinations.  In twice-daily meetings, Khan would convene all interested stakeholders, setting priorities in the morning and checking on results in the evening.  Patel monitored his deputy’s progress at every meeting but took pains not to interfere in his work.  Khan's desk was prominently situated in the middle of the recovery office, while Patel’s occupied a small corner.  When staffers and politicians approached Patel for project approval, he always deferred to his appointee, saying, "I may be chief minister, but I am here as a volunteer."

During his vigil in Morbi, however, Patel did more than just strengthen morale and stay out of the way of seasoned bureaucrats.  His close supervision of relief and recovery work allowed him to identify problems that only he, as the state’s top politician, could quickly solve.  Patel's tendency to intervene in slow projects became legendary in Morbi.  It is said that he once grew so impatient with delays in restoring street lighting to the city that he personally called public offices in each of Gujarat's several dozen districts, instructing them to disassemble existing streetlights and send them to the flooded area in flatbed trucks.  "The rest of Gujarat can be half lit," he allegedly remarked, "but Morbi should be one hundred percent lit.  At 5:00 p.m. tomorrow, I want to flip a switch and see the street light up."  Sure enough, Patel got his wish.

This example embodies the third major lesson the Machhu dam disaster offers: after a catastrophe, elected officials must stand ready to clear any institutional roadblock impeding recovery, speedily implementing extraordinary measures commensurate with the extraordinary circumstances.

One can only imagine the altered trajectory of relief operations on the Gulf Coast—and of George W. Bush's legacy— if the president had taken a page from history and followed Patel's example.  What if he had landed his plane in New Orleans, met with local leaders, and seen for himself the vastly inadequate response his government had put forth?  What if he had immediately sought out a competent administrator who was prepared to tackle the task at hand? What if, instead of allowing the region's recovery to stall for months and then years, he had made rebuilding the Gulf Coast one of his administration's top priorities?  The past cannot be altered, but current and future leaders facing large-scale disasters would do well to take Babubhai Patel’s lessons to heart.

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