The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina revealed failures across an array of human institutions in crisis preparedness, response and recovery. These institutions included federal, state and local agencies, as well as private health care providers and firms involved in energy, the environment, and telecommunications. Analyses of the disaster generally emphasize the internal shortcomings of specific organizations. But not only were individual groups clearly overwhelmed, there were also critical breakdowns in collaboration and coordination.
Moreover, the organizational problems did not begin when Katrina made landfall. The flood control system itself was a patchwork of projects with little in the way of systematic, rigorous planning. The fault for this does not lie with individuals, but with the poorly organized system of planning for flood control.
If Katrina was a “one of a kind” event, then what went wrong would be relevant only for assigning responsibility. But in fact, Katrina may be far from unique. For example, Sacramento is also considered to be highly vulnerable to flooding on a similar scale, while the possible collapse of the levees system in the nearby Delta area could imperil much of California’s water supply. More generally, complexity theory teaches us that low-probability but high cost events are a predictable possible outcome of complex systems (such as oceans, weather, and ecosystems). We need to revamp our approach to these problems in light of what we know from complexity theory.
Raising these issues is easier than providing solutions, of course. I'll talk some more in my next post about how complexity theory relates to disasters, and I'll also float some ideas about how we can do better in the future. But first I want to see if this really works & my post actually ends up on the blog!