New rules: Swamped by Katrina, the Carrollton Water Purification Plant remained off-line until workers were told they could throw switches and start pumps on their own initiative.
New rules: Swamped by Katrina, the Carrollton Water Purification Plant remained off-line until workers were told they could throw switches and start pumps on their own initiative. (By David Brown -- The Washington Post)
By David Brown
Sunday, September 25, 2005

The people and agencies responding to Hurricane Rita's ominous approach to Texas and Louisiana appear to be fast learners.

Preparations for this latest weather onslaught, while hardly perfect, went better than they did a month ago in New Orleans. People evacuated earlier. There were more shelters awaiting their arrival. Food and water were stockpiled in great quantities; troops and surveillance helicopters were ready to help those who stayed behind; an improved system of post-storm communication was in place.

But preparation -- even when it hews closely to the "game plan" -- only gets you so far. In the coming days, people with varying levels of authority all along the Gulf Coast will likely have to make many decisions. Often they'll have to make them quickly, alone, and without experience to guide them. Let's hope they have learned one more thing from Katrina: Sometimes you need to break the rules to avert greater disaster.

I got a glimpse of how some people learned this lesson when I interviewed some of the 65 workers who weathered Katrina and the resulting flood at New Orleans's 70-acre Carrollton Water Purification Plant. The day after the storm hit, the plant stopped working for the first time since 1906. Engineers, electricians, pump-operators and laborers scrambled to get it going again.

Normally, when any worker at Carrollton throws an important switch, fills a boiler or starts up a pump, he must first get permission from the control room. That's the way they tried fixing it at first, but the plant came on line for just 20 minutes before once again shutting down. "The intercoms were out and cell phones didn't work," John R. Huerkamp, the chief of operations, told me. "We finally got to the point where the gentleman who was in charge of central control had to say: 'Look, if you in the boiler room need to roll a pump, roll it. You don't have to call and ask permission. Just do it.' "

The new rule didn't guarantee success: On the second try the next day, the plant operated for only an hour. But it helped make success possible on the third try. "This was a whole learning experience," Huerkamp said.

It's unfortunate that more people in New Orleans -- and in Washington, too -- didn't catch on so quickly. But the sad truth is that despite its success as a sportswear slogan, "Just do it" isn't a terribly popular idea in real American life. We've become a society of rule-followers and permission-seekers. Despite our can-do self-image, what we really want is to be told what to do. When the going gets tough, the tough get consent forms.

To be honest, the forced relocation of a major city's population in less than a week was notgoing to happen without chaos, violence and death, even if it went according to script. But it might have gone better with something added to the script -- a little more insubordination and freelancing.

How different might things have been if officials on the ground had somehow commandeered every bus or other large conveyance they could locate to get people out of the lowlands as soon as water levels started rising? Wouldn't it have been better if, before the storm, someone in the city public works department had unilaterally moved water, food, generators, gas cans and portable toilets to places like the Superdome and the Convention Center, where it was likely people would congregate? If an assistant school superintendent had ordered all the school buses moved to high ground? If the crews of some of the innumerable helicopters circling overhead after the flood had decided to drop off pallets of drinking water on the "interstate islands" where people were marooned for days?

It's difficult to say what specific actions might have made what degree of difference. But it seems that there was a dearth of big, risky and unambiguous decisions by mid-level responders -- managers or intermediate officials with some resources potentially under their control, who had the greatest opportunity to do the right thing at the right time. Instead, there was an excess of waiting for leadership and coordination.

You say letting people throw the switches whenever they think the time is right is a recipe for anarchy? Certainly it can be under normal circumstances. But a hurricane's aftermath creates abnormal circumstances. Anarchy is what happens when people are left without the essentials for life -- and are terrified to boot. They find their own stocks of water and food (and guns and drugs and liquor, too).

The unfortunate truth is, when a 100-year hurricane hits a city that is poor and violent under the best of circumstances, if the people in charge don't break the rules, the people who aren't in charge will. It seems at least possible that there would have been less disorder after the storm if more people had put their hunches and reputations on the line before and during it.

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