The Best-Laid Plan: Too Bad It Flopped

By DAVID BROOKS

New York Times

September 11, 2005

Among the many achievements of the human race - Chartres Cathedral, the Mona Lisa - surely the New Orleans emergency preparedness plan must rank among the greatest, and the fact that this plan turned out to be irrelevant to reality should not detract from its stature as a masterpiece of bureaucratic thinking.

The plan (which is viewable online at www.cityofno.com/portal.aspx?portal=46&tabid=26) begins with the insight: Be prepared. Or as the plan puts it, "Individuals with assigned tasks must receive preparatory training to maximize operations."

The plan lays out a course of action so that all personnel will know exactly what to do in case of a hurricane. The Office of Emergency Preparedness will coordinate with the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness in conjunction with the Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan by taking full advantage of the courses offered by the Louisiana Emergency Preparedness Association and other agencies "as well as conferences, seminars and workshops that may from time to time be available, most notably state hurricane conferences and workshops and the National Hurricane Conference."

In addition, the plan continues, the administrative and training officer of the Office of Emergency Preparedness will maintain close communication with the state training officer of the L.O.E.P., making sure workshops are conducted at the Emergency Support Function level, reviewing Emergency Operating Center/E.S.F. standard operating procedures and undertaking more "intensive work sessions with elements of the emergency response organizations in order to enhance unified disaster planning."

One can imagine the PowerPoint presentations! The millions of cascading bullet points! The infinity of hours spent planning a hurricane response that would make a Prussian officer gasp with reverence!

Furthermore, the plan instructs the O.E.P. director to execute Mass Casualty Incidents scenarios; work with the Association of Contingency Planners and other groups to coordinate disaster organization responses; coordinate, facilitate and encourage other agencies to conduct emergency self-assessments; engage in assessment processes in preparation for the Agency Disaster Report; and produce after-action reports with the O.E.P. shelter coordinator in conjunction with the Louisiana Statewide Hurricane Exercise.

The paper flow must have been magnificent! The quality of the facilitating must have been surpassed only by the magnificence of the interfacing!

The New Orleans emergency preparedness plan offers a precise communications strategy, so all city residents will know exactly where to go in times of crisis. It recommends that two traffic control officers be placed at each key intersection. It recommends busing the thousands of residents unable to evacuate themselves to staging areas prestocked with food.

In short, the plan was so beautiful, it's too bad reality destroyed it. The plan's authors were not stupid or venal. They are doubtless good public servants who worked in agencies set up to prepare for this storm. And yet their elaborate plan crumbled under the weight of the actual disaster.

But of course this illustrates the paradox at the heart of the Katrina disaster, which is that we really need government in times like this, but government is extremely limited in what it can effectively do.

Katrina was the most anticipated natural disaster in American history, and still government managed to fail at every level.

For the brutal fact is, government tends toward bureaucracy, which means elaborate paper flow but ineffective action. Government depends on planning, but planners can never really anticipate the inevitable complexity of events. And American government is inevitably divided and power is inevitably devolved.

For example, the Army Corps of Engineers had plenty of money (Louisiana received more than any other state), but that spending was carved up into little pork barrel projects. There were ample troops nearby to maintain order, but they were divided between federal and state authorities and constrained by regulations.

This preparedness plan is government as it really is. It reminds us that canning Michael Brown or appointing some tough response czar will not change the endemic failures at the heart of this institutional collapse.

So of course we need limited but energetic government. But liberals who think this disaster is going to set off a progressive revival need to explain how a comprehensive governmental failure is going to restore America's faith in big government.