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.

Of course there were examples of constructive rule-breaking in the Katrina disaster zone. One of the more memorable involved the mayor of Gulfport, Miss., who, as reported in this newspaper, ordered his police chief to hot-wire a privately owned fuel truck and move it onto city property. One of the more incredible was the report in the New York Times about two Navy helicopter pilots who, after delivering food and water to military installations along the Gulf Coast, heard a radio transmission saying helicopters were needed to rescue people in New Orleans. Out of radio range of their commanders and unable to get permission, they nevertheless went to the rescue of about 100 people. When they got back they were reprimanded, according to the article. One pilot was grounded and put in charge of overseeing a kennel holding the pets of evacuated service members.

There were others. Some search-and-rescue teams agreed to carry out pets -- against the rules -- because they knew it was the only way the animals' owners would leave.

But why weren't there more examples of ingenuity and initiative? Aren't Americans historically a people who don't bow to authority, who do things their own way? Isn't that part of the mythology of American restlessness, inventiveness and westward migration?

From what I've seen -- in daily life, as well as in my reporting -- two things have poisoned American decisiveness, at least in the public sector.

One is the consciousness of legal liability that has permeated our culture in the most astonishing way. The shortest, safest school outing requires signed releases. School nurses can't give children a tablet of ibuprofen without parental permission. Paper coffee cups warn me that coffee is hot. I bought a kayak a couple of years ago that came with a sticker -- "Important Notice! Read Before Use!" -- informing me that kayaks are used on water and that people can drown if they don't wear life jackets or don't know how to swim.

This don't-sue-me mindset can pop up anywhere, any time. A small example occurred last winter when I rode a military plane from Banda Aceh to Jakarta while reporting on the tsunami in Indonesia

The plane carried about 60 displaced Indonesians and 15 Westerners, including a security guard from the U.S. embassy who was accompanying several government contractors. We landed at 4 a.m. at the military airport in the pouring rain. Shaking with fever and anxious about how I would find my way to downtown Jakarta at that hour, I asked the embassy guard whether I could get a ride in the van that was waiting for him and the contractors.

"I don't know who you are," he said. "Anyway, our insurance doesn't cover people like you in the car."

The Hungarian ambassador to Indonesia, also on the plane and clearly a much bigger risk-taker, gave me a lift in his chauffeur-driven automobile.

Another reason many Americans in authority hesitate to make risky decisions is the fear of criticism and even public humiliation -- at the hands of the news media, late-night comedians and, now, the nonstop cacophony of the blogosphere.

Many members of my profession make a living, pay mortgages and send children to college in part by telling people how they could have done things better. We make a point about conflicts of interest, whether real or merely perceived, and whether or not they would make any difference. We get on the case of people who do too much, and we get on the case of people who do too little. We are obsessed with motive, and in general assume questionable competence or bad faith among public servants.

Except in the rare case where action is immediately deemed heroic and subjected to little criticism -- the behavior of fire and law enforcement officials on Sept. 11, 2001, is a notable example -- there are few functions of government that, in their minds at least, reporters, editorial writers and columnists couldn't do better. Not to mention Jon Stewart.

While this critic-and-second-guesser role is an important part of journalism, in practice there's too much of it, and it comes at a price. The price is that people have become afraid to do things that fall outside their job description without explicit permission and implied forgiveness for possible bad outcomes.

Five days after the hurricane, a Federal Emergency Management Agency official ordered Mark N. Perlmutter, a 50-year-old orthopedic surgeon from Pennsylvania, to stop treating patients on the tarmac of the New Orleans airport because he had not filled out the proper paperwork. He protested, explaining that the woman he had just diagnosed with diabetic ketoacidosis might die without immediate intravenous fluids and insulin. But he was led away. The official said to him, "We cannot guarantee tort liability protection," Perlmutter told me yesterday.

After learning that on-site certification wasn't yet possible, the doctor was allowed to return to the tarmac and get his medical instruments. The woman, who was semi-conscious when he'd first seen her, was dead, Perlmutter said. He then flew to Baton Rouge in a helicopter and got certified, a process he said "took about two minutes."

This is an extreme example of rule-following -- which is why it made got news coverage. There are other examples.

One of them was the behavior of the 769th and 527th engineering battalions of the Louisiana National Guard, which were housed at the Convention Center when that building became an island of deprivation, chaos and lawlessness.

The 350 armed soldiers knew enough about what was going on to barricade their part of the building against the mob, and to come and go from a side door so few people would know of their presence. Later, they said no one had told them to restore order in the convention center. That's bad enough (and I know this is the know-it-all reporter talking). What's worse is that they didn't do it without being asked.

"The idea of helping with the convention center never came up. We were preparing ourselves for the next mission," said the 769th commander, Maj. Keith Waddell, according to a Washington Post report.

This was an engineering battalion, not trained in quelling civil disturbance. Fair enough. Then why issue them rifles, ammunition and helmets? These weren't U.S. troops, whose role in local law enforcement is circumscribed by federal law. This was a local Guard unit. Isn't the common denominator of being part of the state militia -- in whatever function -- that you are expected to keep order at times of popular rebellion?

Certainly the prospect of entering a crowded hall containing armed men who might shoot at you in the dark behind the protective screen of hundreds of innocent civilians is terrifying. It is also a situation that very possibly could result in the death of guardsmen. But isn't this a risk that people who join the guard agree to face?

The idea "never even came up"? I personally doubt this. But if it's true, it makes the whole thing even more astounding.

By now, New Orleans appears to have become an extremely orderly place. At nearly every corner, soldiers stand ready to check ID. Rules are followed punctiliously.

Everyone coloring inside the lines -- it's a great system until the wind starts blowing really, really hard.

Author's e-mail:

browndm@washpost.com

David Brown covers science and medicine for The Post.

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.