- Based on FEMA (2010b) data as of July 2, 2010
Focusing attention on the consequences of poor disaster management, the April 2010 explosion and subsequent oil spill at British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig is now considered the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history. Scientists estimate between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels of oil gush into the Gulf of Mexico each day. As local, state and national leaders scramble to find a way to “plug the hole,” effectiveness of U.S. disaster management planning is increasingly scrutinized.
Dissertation analyzes disaster planning
Arlen “Ken” Griffey, a senior leader at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and a doctoral learner at University of Phoenix, is working on a dissertation, Infrastructure Disaster Management: Insight from Small Business Leaders After a Mega Disaster. The Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) candidate is researching ways to improve leaders’ responses to both natural and manmade disasters, such as the Gulf Coast oil spill.
As a resident of Mississippi, which has endured disasters of its own, Griffey originally wanted to learn more about how government, business and community leaders handled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “The concept of ‘disaster planning’ may sound like an oxymoron,” Griffey explained. “After all, how are leaders supposed to plan for the unexpected? But in reality, the effectiveness of a leader’s response after a disaster is of utmost importance to the safety and welfare of citizens and communities.”
While collecting and analyzing data for his dissertation in 2010, Griffey watched news reports about a variety of disasters, including severe Midwestern floods, harsh Northeastern snowstorms, devastating earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, disruptive ash from Greenland’s volcanic eruption, as well as the BP oil spill. “I never expected that before my study was done, Gulf Coast leaders would be facing a disaster of even greater proportions than the Katrina, Rita and Wilma hurricanes of 2005,” Griffey said.
Scripted plans limit effectiveness
According to Griffey, disaster management approaches historically rely on scripted, often generic, plans for leaders to follow. While disasters share some similarities, Griffey’s research indicates each disaster presents unique circumstances and challenges. Even similar disasters, such as flooding, often require different responses. Familiarity with prior flooding led New Orleans’ leaders to believe they were ready for Hurricane Katrina. Only after the levees collapsed did city leaders realize the insufficiency of their planning. Flooding from a Category 5 hurricane, compounded by New Orleans’ bowl-shaped landscape, resulted in significantly different disaster outcomes than those created from Midwestern floods with rushing river water. Likewise, Haiti and Chile both suffered from earthquakes in 2010; however, the damage to each country differed significantly. Since Chile frequently experienced seismic activity, strict building codes were in place and people were educated about earthquake safety. In contrast, Haitians were completely unprepared since the small nation had not experienced an earthquake in over 200 years.
Griffey noted that while advance planning is prudent, scripted strategies often are insufficient when responding to disasters. In the case of the oil spill catastrophe, investigative reporters for The Associated Press found “glaring errors and omissions in BP’s oil spill response plans”. BP’s strategy included contingencies for dealing with walruses, sea otters, sea lions and seals – none of which live in the Gulf of Mexico. The plan also included incorrect names and phone numbers for various marine life specialists, including Dr. Peter Lutz, who died in 2005.
Situational leadership needed
While it is not possible to control when or how a disaster strikes, leaders must be prepared to respond after a catastrophe occurs in order to minimize loss of life and economic disruption. Analysis of data from 128 Gulf Coast business leaders who survived Hurricane Katrina led Griffey to conclude rigid disaster plans can hinder the relief and recovery efforts of a community.
In order to prepare fully for the distinct challenges of each disaster, leaders should be empowered to assess each situation and act accordingly. Rather than being tied to scripted responses based on prior disasters, leaders should be trained in how to creatively adapt to emerging situations. Griffey suggests leaders learn to work effectively with people who are “boots on the ground” since they are more in touch with the needs of the community.
Griffey expects his analysis to be published in fall 2010.
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