Hurricanes Gustav, Katrina and Ike

On August 29, 2005 hurricane Katrina, a category 5 storm, raced across the Gulf of Mexico and made landfall in New Orleans, Louisiana. When it was over, levees had been breached, eighty percent of the city was flooded, 1,500 people had died, and property damage exceeded $80 billion.

It was the costliest natural disaster in US history.

Then, three years later, on September 1, 2008 the city was threatened again. Hurricane Gustav, a category 3 storm, was racing toward New Orleans.

But this time the White House, FEMA , state and local agencies were determine to put the management lessons learned from Katrina to work.

The preparation and cleanup of Katrina had suffered from a completely ineffective organizational structure. Lack of coordination among a collection of agencies, all of them with ambiguous limits of authority and responsibility, prevented anything from getting done. It was bureaucracy at its worst, from the White House to the city officials in New Orleans.

But Gustav was different. The lessons learned from Katrina helped to orchestrate an orderly process of evacuation which started Saturday August 30, 2008 when City of New Orleans officials ordered everyone to leave by the following day.

There was a bit of over exaggeration when Mayor C. Ray Nagin warned that “this is the mother of all storms, and I’m not sure we’ve seen anything like it,” but this was tempered by official forecasts from the National Hurricane Center suggesting a somewhat less severe storm.

The citizens of New Orleans, however, didn’t need much coaxing. With the memory of Katrina still vivid, the exodus from New Orleans was quick and complete.

The storm, fortunately, did not make a direct hit on New Orleans and in its aftermath many thought that the aggressive campaign to evacuate the city was overdone.

Then on September 13, 2008 another major hurricane, Ike, a category 2 storm, approached Galveston Texas. The storm surge, expected to be about 20 feet (when it arrived the surge was between 10 to 12 feet) promised to completely inundate the city. Warnings to evacuate were sounded well in advance of the storm, but this time, according to a report in the New York Times, 20,000 residents in a city of 57,000 refused.

Why did so few evacuate with Katrina bearing down on New Orleans in 2005, so many evacuate New Orleans in advance of Gustav in 2008, and so few leave before Ike made landfall in 2008?

There are, of course many reasons, but one that stands out and one that accounts for many project failures, stands out.

The support necessary to plan and execute the evacuation, together with the willingness of citizens to cooperate with authorities, can be related to a well known behavioral concept called the “Recency Effect.” We can interpret it in this way. When there have been no recent hurricanes, people are more inclined to ignore the risk of an impending storm. Even when warned, many will not listen.

Why? Because we tend to place most of our emphasis on recent events, giving less and less emphasis to events as they fade into the past.

With the memories of Katrina still vivid, the recency effect underscored the warnings issued by the Mayor and the National Hurricane Center. As the threat from Gustav became clear, the order to evacuate was made. Residents, remembering the video images of the devastation and death from Katrina, heeded those warnings and left.

Then, as Ike approached Galveston, and residents reflected on the television images of people fleeing New Orleans as Gustav approached, the recency effect worked in the opposite direction, since the evacuation of New Orleans just weeks before seemed so unnecessary and overdone.

What lesson was Learned? While many organizations fail to learn from failures, one conclusion is that New Orleans did learn from Katrina and that they were better prepared to cope with Gustav; levees were repaired, communication among agencies was better, lines of authority were clearly established.

But, a very interesting result here is that the evidence from Gustav and Ike confirms a very basic systematic bias that often affects the way we initiate, plan, execute, and monitor projects. This bias, the recency effect, explains why NASA failed to investigate when pieces of foam insulation broke away from the propellant tanks on every shuttle flight before the Columbia disaster. It explains why you should do your best work just before an annual performance review, and it helps explain why residents resist evacuation just after a hurricane occurs in which little damage is done.

Good decision makers know that they need to be careful not to overemphasize recent events but to judiciously use all of the data available to them. George Santayana said it this way over a hundred years ago; “those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it”

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