Being Ready – Lessons from Catastrophic Events

Recently McLeod Governance was asked to assist in the development of a disaster recovery strategy for a large listed organisation.

As part of our research we came across a fascinating report from the United States Government Accountability Office.

The report was written in 2009.

The GAO reviewed five catastrophic disasters—the Loma Prieta earthquake (California, 1989), Hurricane Andrew (Florida, 1992), the Northridge earthquake (California, 1994), the Kobe earthquake (Japan, 1995), and the Grand Forks/Red River flood (North Dakota and Minnesota, 1997)—to identify recovery lessons.

The lessons learnt from these moments of great crisis should resonate with every organisation as it establishes or reviews its disaster recovery plans.

The opening sentence of the report is so basic that it could easily be overlooked yet in our experience the issue highlighted is THE key issue that organisations (and countries) have to address in the aftermath of an out of the ordinary event.

The report notes:

Effective collaboration among stakeholders can play a key role in facilitating long-term recovery after a catastrophic event.

The GAO identified four collaborative practices:

  • Develop and communicate common goals to guide recovery. Defining common recovery goals can enhance collaboration by helping stakeholders overcome differences in missions and cultures. After the Grand Forks/Red River flood, federally-funded consultants convened various stakeholders to develop recovery goals and priorities for the city of Grand Forks. The city used these goals as a basis to create a detailed recovery action plan that helped it to implement its recovery goals.
  • Leverage resources to facilitate recovery. Collaborating groups bring different resources and capacities to the task at hand. After the Northridge earthquake, officials from the Federal Highway Administration and California’s state transportation agency worked together to review highway rebuilding contracts, discuss changes, and then approve projects all in one location. This co-located, collaborative approach enabled the awarding of rebuilding contracts in 3 to 5 days—instead of the 26 to 40 weeks it could take using normal contracting procedures. This helped to restore damaged highways within a few months of the earthquake.
  • Use recovery plans to agree on roles and responsibilities. Organizations can collectively agree on who will do what by identifying roles and responsibilities in recovery plans developed either before or after a disaster takes place. Learning from its experiences from the Loma Prieta earthquake, San Francisco Bay Area officials created a plan that clearly identifies roles for all participants in order to facilitate regional recovery in the event of a future disaster.
  • Monitor, evaluate, and report on progress made toward recovery. After the 1995 earthquake, the city of Kobe and the surrounding region established processes to assess and report on recovery progress. These jurisdictions required periodic external reviews over 10 years on the progress made toward achieving recovery goals. As a result of one of these reviews, the city of Kobe gained insight into unintended consequences of how it relocated elderly earthquake victims, which subsequently led to a change in policy.

The final key observation relates to communication and it is a lesson, again, that all organisations could heed:

Past recovery experiences—including practices that promote effective collaboration—offer potentially valuable lessons for future catastrophic events. FEMA (United States Federal Emergency Management Agency) has taken some steps to facilitate the sharing of such experiences among communities involved in disaster recovery. However, the agency can do more to build on and systematize the sharing of this information so that recovery lessons are better captured and disseminated for use in the future.

Who reading this now can honestly say that they have done all they could in sharing lessons within their organisation?

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