Taking a break from his vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, President Obama made a brief statement on Hurricane Irene Friday morning. He called the massive hurricane an “extremely dangerous and costly storm” and warned residents who were told to evacuate to do so. He said the administration is in close contact with state and local efforts and told people “we have to be prepared for the worst.” He wrapped up the short remarks this way: “To sum up, all indications point to this being a historic hurricane.”
The statement may help keep the president’s critics from saying his vacation kept him too distracted from the impending storm. Or it very well may not: If the storm’s damage is particularly devastating, or if the government’s response seems inept in any way, it will be easy for critics to point fingers at the president for lounging around Martha’s Vineyard in the days leading up to the storm.
While such political carping is certainly possible, if not likely in some corners, most of us know that the leadership handling the response to Irene is far broader than the president, even if he will ultimately reap the rewards and wear the scars of the quality of the government’s reaction. There is Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security secretary. There are the leaders of many government agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as all the governors and mayors of the many states and cities expected to be affected by this storm.
And of course, at the center of the storm will be Craig Fugate, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Even though it’s been six years since Hurricane Katrina, his agency is sure to be closely watched to see how well it responds to the crisis. Years after the ridicule the agency and its then-head Michael Brown received in Katrina’s wake, FEMA will be examined for how well its leaders have learned from past disasters.
To get a sense of what those crisis management lessons might be--for government agencies, the president, and any leader trying to prepare for disaster--it’s worth watching this video of Fugate, who sat down with The Washington Post’s On Leadership section early last year. It’s also worth considering comments from Brown himself, who told his side of the Katrina story in a brand new book published just two months ago. Here, four lessons on leading through disaster from two men who know the terrain all too well:
-It’s better to go big now than worry about waste. Fugate, who headed up Florida’s Division of Emergency Management before getting the FEMA job in 2009, says he always hears a lot of worries about spending too much money or having excess supplies or resources if an emergency is overestimated. “When you’ve got a big hurricane coming in you go big,” he told the Post’s Steve Pearlstein, adding “respond like it’s bad and gear down.” He goes on to say that “you can have it fast, you can have it cheap, you can have it right. In a disaster, pick one. In those first 72 hours speed is the most critical thing.”
-Encourage failure during practice. Fugate is known for operating “thunderbolt drills” that are “no-notice exercises” that help his agency prepare for disasters. “You want to isolate in on things, get people into the sense that you don’t have warning for most disasters. They don’t occur when you’re at work.” While running such drills may not translate to every organization, there is a lesson leaders can learn from the idea. However you stress test your staff’s preparedness to deal with a crisis, “you’ve got to allow them to fail,” Fugate says. “If we’re not exercising to the point of failure, how do we know when [the system] breaks? I tell my teams if you’re going to make a mistake for the right reasons, I’ve got your back. The only thing I ask is next time be creative, and don’t do the same thing again.”
-Push for candor when it counts. Who knows what Michael “heckuva job” Brown’s intentions were for writing his new book, Deadly Indifference: The Perfect (Political) Storm . He has said he’s not out to even scores, even if he has sharp criticism for many in the Bush administration in the book. Whatever the case, the book appears to be particularly revealing for where Brown admits to going wrong himself. U.S. News’ Paul Bedard writes that Brown “admits he was too intimidated to be frank about the situation with Bush when he had a chance,” and that “he wasn’t as forceful with Bush about trying to get FEMA power.” Fugate will need to tell Obama exactly what he needs, and Obama will need to push for that candor explicitly. The same goes for any set of leaders managing a crisis.
-Don’t do a fly-over. George W. Bush’s famous Air Force One flight over southern Louisiana was one of the biggest mistakes of his administration’s handling of the crisis. The picture of Bush peering out of the presidential plane onto a drowning New Orleans was seared into the minds of voters. Brown says in his book, reports Bedard, that stopping “would have given him a chance to have the president reassert FEMA’s top role in the disaster instead of having to work through Homeland Security.” More importantly, it would have made the president look in touch with the disaster rather than aloof and removed from it all. Irene, while dangerous, may be nothing on the scale of Katrina. But where disaster does strike, President Obama should heed the lessons of the past and get on the ground.