Crisis Communication before/during/after Hurricane Katrina…What Went So Wrong?

Picture provided by Dr. Susanna Priest, College of Mass Communications and Information StudiesAccording to Wikipedia crisis communication is sometimes considered a sub-specialty of the public relations profession that is designed to protect and defend an individual, company, or organization facing a public challenge to its reputation. When there is a break in communication before, during and after a crisis this can mean disaster. In late August 2005, Hurricane Katrina was proof of this which officials still use this catastrophe as a reference of how what needs to be improved on for future disasters.

What did go so wrong in the first place? According to state, local and federal agencies knew the big storm was going to hit and they spent the weekend before the storm in almost non-stop conference calls — making sure all the plans for food, water and security were in place. But even before the storm hit, some of the plans started to fall apart. National Guard troops in other states sat ready, waiting for orders that never came. Instead, they were told to wait for an official plan and a chain of command to be established. When they finally received an official order to deliver supplies, the delivery point was miles off of where the most help was needed. It seriously all came down to red tape.

While reading through the many reports of failed communication before, after and during Katrina from stories such as the one I found by Information Today, communication gaps where due mostly in part from damaged lines, no cell service, no internet and all powers of communication completely lost. But the bigger picture was that no one felt they had the power to cut through the red tape and step up to call out orders. Seems officials had so much bureaucracy to go through and that needed to change. Our government at all levels completely failed and its public lost faith.

President George W. Bush stated “This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina. We are going to review every action and make necessary changes so that we are better prepared for any challenge of nature, or act of evil men, that could threaten our people”. The White House published a “lessons learned” report in which they re-evaluated how this county can survive the next big disaster with a strong communication plan using Katrina as a model of what not to do.

Recently with the Hurricane Sandy disaster the communication was much better. President Obama stated “We will cut through red tape. We are not going to get bogged down with a lot of rules.” The state and local government levels did not have to wait for federal government to deliver orders. Emergency assistance and supplies were received quickly, communication gaps were tightened and cleanup efforts are well on their way.

Overcoming disaster is difficult but not learning from the past can be catastrophic. There are still many improvements that can be made but we are well on our way.