Monday, September 05, 2005

Katrina: Communications, Supply Chains, Hub and Spoke, and Leadership

I have been riveted by the horrors of the last week: the unspeakable destruction and loss of life, the breakdown of planning and response, and the slow to start but increasingly effective effort- voluntary and government.

Clearly our internet and technology enabled world is not what the inventors of the internet imagined when they conceived of a mesh of communications to survive a nuclear war. In fact, the web of communications in the disaster area and beyond completely broke down in my view because most every communication funnels through "hub and spokes" be they large telecom hubs or bureaucracies, a model the airlines functioned with and failed with. The wireless systems which provide us such mobility failed along with the rest, no power and they were tied into the hubs as well. And even if you could get a signal with no power to charge a cell or raido battery, communications went dead. I always carry a charger to hand crank charge my cell if need be. Satellite phones, a business barely sustained by news organizations, NGO's and yachts proved invaluble- the few in the hands of the media from their travels to Iraq and the Third World. AM radio served as the only means of communications in New Orleans.

The centralized FEMA and LA state government were paralyzed by indecision and even paperwork! in the early going. They clearly didn't understand the geography. The playbook should have gone out the window earlier and bold initiative should have gone into action . Even watching TV and interfacing with the resourceful journalists would have brought help further and earlier to the stranded as the newspeople were on the scene and communicating.

Tragically, real long term plans to raise the levees as the land sank and the wetlands were filled in for development languished for decades with the most clearly at risk, the poorest, also those with the least politcal clout. There was a big picture of increasing risk which went largely answered for decades despite warnings.

Further, our reliance on "supply chains" timed to the second to maximize efficiencies when was combined with the geographical importance of New Orleans as the funnel for so many goods and so much energy sharply underlined the fragility of a chain vs. a mesh of mutiple sources. Now that the "supply chain" of relief is flowing efficiently, help is surely coming, but to late for how many?

Early initiative to help resided with the nimble and focused-the Coast Guard, other military and volunteers. The Coast Guard saves lives from water and storm and that is exactly what they did. Leadership came from General Honore who like a later day Patton (one with a heart) charged in with force and a clear mission. He "personally" brought help and visibly defused tensions by telling soldiers to lower the weapons-"You're not in Iraq" he told them. These situations demand organized leaders who function on initiative, seeing the big picture, flexibility, action, and passion- not exactly the conventional and current model of specialization so prevelant in business and FEMA? and also so sought after from a higher educational system focused on research and test scores.

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