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Katrina Lessons

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I wonder how the guy who said, “There are no problems, only opportunities,” would explain New Orleans.

The combination of tragedy, mind-boggling incompetence, and failure to prepare for a long-predicted preventable catastrophe is a problem. For all of us. If it’s an opportunity, it’s to remind us of a few basic facts effective leaders, including IT leaders, can’t ignore.

Blaming the victim takes less effort and is more satisfying than understanding the situation.

A popular talking point is that “they” don’t deserve sympathy, since “they” built a city five feet below sea level. Let’s not stop there: Nobody gets any help after a disaster unless it couldn’t have happened where they live. A lot of the Netherlands used to be sea bottom. Forget them! Californians? They chose to live near an earthquake fault, as Floridians chose to live in a hurricane zone. As a Minnesotan I think it’s a fair policy, so long as we Midwesterners get help after tornadoes, blizzards and spring floods. We live here to avoid the earthquakes and hurricanes, after all.

Of course, only parts of New Orleans are below sea level, and it’s been sinking at a rate of three feet per century — do the math. When, exactly, was everyone was supposed to pack up and leave?

Lesson for IT: When someone’s PC stops working don’t crab at them and don’t assume they’re morons who went out of their way to annoy you. Help them solve their problem. Uh … opportunity.

Achieving a leadership position bestows neither expertise nor acumen on the ignorant.

Three of the top five executives in FEMA had no experience or training in managing emergencies. Expertise does matter.

Lesson for IT: Some CIOs have no technical background. If you’re one of them, seek out the best engineers in your organization — those with the most knowledge and best judgment. Spend a lot of time listening to them. Doing so isn’t a sign of weakness. Failing to do so is.

This is how you can make sure you get early warnings about problems while they’re still solvable. Don’t rely solely on your chain of command. Develop direct relationships with your experts, too.

Turning your back on a problem doesn’t put the problem behind you.

Politicians of both political parties ignored the clear, loud warnings of scientists and engineers that that the drowning of New Orleans was inevitable. This, for example, appeared in Scientific American in 2001:

A major hurricane could swamp New Orleans under 20 feet of water, killing thousands. Human activities along the Mississippi River have dramatically increased the risk, and now only massive reengineering of southeastern Louisiana can save the city.

If a big, slow-moving hurricane crossed the Gulf of Mexico on the right track, it would drive a sea surge that would drown New Orleans under 20 feet of water. “As the water recedes,” says Walter Maestri, a local emergency management director, “we expect to find a lot of dead bodies.”

Mike Parker, former head of the Army Corps of Engineers, showed Mitch Daniels, then Director of the OMB, two pieces of steel. One was new, the other had spent 30 years under water in a Mississippi lock and was completely corroded. Complaining about a 33% budget reduction in 2002, he said, “Mitch, it doesn’t matter if a terrorist blows the lock up or if it falls down because it disintegrates — either way it’s the same effect, and if we let it fall down, we have only ourselves to blame.” Shortly thereafter, Daniels made sure Parker was fired.

While maintenance funds were being cut, Representative Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana) made sure Congress allocated $194 million to increase capacity for barge traffic while barge traffic had been steadily declining and the Army Corps of Engineers had advised against the project. Meanwhile, Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) obtained $230 million to build a bridge connecting a city of 8,000 to an island with 50 inhabitants.

Lesson for IT: Don’t allocate budget to placate political constituencies in your company until after you’ve taken care of business.

An ounce of prevention continues to be less expensive and more convenient than a pound of cure.

Beefing up the levee would have cost less than $30 million. The cost of failing to do so will be at least a thousand times more.

Lesson for IT: It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?

Last, beat-the-dead-horse word on all of this: Managers deal with financial and political realities. Engineers deal with the reality imposed by the laws of physics.

In the end, engineering does matter.

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