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Originally published Sunday, October 9, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

When disaster strikes, you need to take matters into your own hands

The people and agencies that responded to Hurricane Rita's ominous approach to the Gulf Coast of Texas appeared to be fast learners. Preparations for this latest...

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The people and agencies that responded to Hurricane Rita's ominous approach to the Gulf Coast of Texas appeared to be fast learners.

Preparations for this latest weather onslaught went better than they did more than a month ago in New Orleans. People left earlier. There were more shelters awaiting their arrival. Food and water were stockpiled in great quantities; troops and surveillance helicopters were ready to help those who stayed behind; a better system of post-storm communication was in place.

But preparation — even when it hews closely to the "game plan" — only gets you so far. In the coming days, people with varying levels of authority all along the Gulf Coast will have to make many decisions. Often they'll have to make them quickly, alone, and without experience to guide them. Let's hope these people have learned one more thing from Hurricane Katrina: Sometimes you need to break rules and take matters into your own hands.

I got a glimpse of how some people learned this lesson when I interviewed some of the 65 workers who weathered Katrina and the resulting flood at New Orleans' 70-acre Carrollton Water Purification Plant. The day after the storm hit, the plant stopped working for the first time since 1906. Engineers, technicians, electricians, pump operators and laborers scrambled to get it going again.

Normally, when any worker at Carrollton throws an important switch, fills a boiler or starts up a pump, he must first get permission from the control room. That's the way they tried fixing it at first, but the plant came on line for just 20 minutes before once again shutting down. "The intercoms were out and cellphones didn't work," John Huerkamp, the chief of operations, told me. "We finally got to the point where the gentleman who was in charge of central control had to say: 'Look, if you in the boiler room need to roll a pump, roll it. You don't have to call and ask permission. Just do it.' "

The new rule didn't guarantee success: On the second try the next day, the plant operated for only an hour. But it helped make success possible on the third try. "This was a whole learning experience," Huerkamp said.

It's unfortunate that more people in New Orleans — and in Washington, too — didn't catch on so quickly. But the sad truth is that despite its success as a sports-wear slogan, "Just do it" isn't a terribly popular idea in real American life. We've become a society of rule-followers and permission-seekers. Despite our can-do self-image, what we really want is to be told what to do. When the going gets tough, the tough get consent forms.

To be honest, the forced relocation of a city the size of New Orleans in less than a week was never going to happen without chaos, violence and death, even if it went exactly according to script. But it might have gone better with something added to the script — a little more insubordination and freelancing.

How different might things have been if officials on the ground had somehow commandeered every bus or other large conveyance they could locate to get people out of the lowlands as soon as water levels started rising? Wouldn't it have been better if, before the storm, someone in the city public works department had unilaterally moved stocks of water and food, and generators, gas cans and portable toilets to places like the Superdome and the Convention Center, where it was likely people would congregate? If an assistant school superintendent had ordered all the school buses moved to high ground? If the crews of some of the innumerable helicopters circling overhead after the flood had decided to drop off pallets of drinking water on the "interstate islands" where people were marooned for days?

It's difficult to say what specific actions might have made what degree of difference. But it seems that there was a dearth of big, risky and unambiguous decisions by mid-level responders — managers or intermediate officials with some resources potentially under their control, who had the greatest opportunity to do the right thing at the right time. Instead, there was an excess of waiting for leadership and coordination.

You say letting people throw the switches whenever they think the time is right is a recipe for anarchy? Certainly it can be under normal circumstances. But a hurricane's approach creates abnormal circumstances. Anarchy is what happens when people are left without the essentials for life — and are terrified to boot. They find their own stocks of water and food (and guns and drugs and liquor, too).

The unfortunate truth is, when a 100-year hurricane hits a city that is poor and violent under the best of circumstances, if the people in charge don't break the rules, the people who aren't in charge will. It seems at least possible that there would have been less disorder after the storm if more people had put their hunches and reputations on the line before and during it.

Of course, there were examples of constructive rule-breaking in the Katrina disaster zone.

One of the more memorable involved the mayor of Gulfport, Miss., who, as reported in The Washington Post, ordered his police chief to hot-wire a privately owned fuel truck and move it onto city property. One of the more incredible was the report in The New York Times about two Navy helicopter pilots who, after delivering food and water to military installations along the Gulf Coast, heard a radio transmission saying helicopters were needed to rescue people in New Orleans. Out of radio range of their commanders and unable to get permission, they nevertheless went to the rescue of about 100 people. When they got back they were reprimanded, according to the article. One pilot was grounded and put in charge of overseeing a kennel holding the pets of evacuated service members.

There were others. Some search-and-rescue teams agreed to carry out pets — against the rules — because they knew it was the only way the animals' owners would leave.

But why weren't there more examples of ingenuity and initiative? Aren't Americans historically a people who don't bow to authority, who do things their own way? Isn't that part of the mythology of American restlessness, inventiveness and westward migration?

From what I've seen — in daily life, as well as in my reporting — two things have poisoned American decisiveness, at least in the public sector.

One is the consciousness of legal liability that has permeated our culture in the most astonishing way. The shortest, safest school outing requires signed releases. School nurses can't give children a tablet of ibuprofen without parental permission. Paper coffee cups warn me that coffee is hot.

The other reason many Americans in authority hesitate to make risky decisions is the fear of criticism and even public humiliation — at the hands of the news media, late-night comedians, and now the nonstop cacophony of the blog-osphere.

Many members of my profession make a living, pay mortgages and send children to college in part by telling people how they could have done things better. We get on the case of people who do too much, and we get on the case of people who do too little.

Except in the rare case where action is immediately deemed heroic and subjected to little criticism — the behavior of fire and law enforcement officials on Sept. 11, 2001, is a notable example — there are few functions of government that, in their minds at least, reporters, editorial writers and columnists couldn't do better. Not to mention Jon Stewart.

While this critic-and-second-guesser role is an important part of journalism, in practice there's too much of it, and it comes at a price. The price is that people have become afraid to do things that fall outside their job description without explicit permission and implied forgiveness for possible bad outcomes.

The Advocate newspaper of Baton Rouge carried a story about an orthopedic surgeon from Pennsylvania who had come to Louisiana to help evacuees. As he was trying to resuscitate a patient at a makeshift clinic, a Coast Guardsman ordered him to stop doing chest compressions because he had not yet registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and therefore had not been approved to deliver care.

This is an extreme example of rule-following — which is why it got on the front page of the newspaper. There are other, far more serious examples.

One of them was the behavior of the 769th and 527th engineering battalions of the Louisiana National Guard, which were housed at the Convention Center when that building became an island of deprivation, chaos and lawlessness.

The 350 armed soldiers knew enough about what was going on to barricade their part of the building against the mob, and to come and go from a side door so as few people as possible would know of their presence. Later, they said no one had told them to restore order in the convention center. That's bad enough (and I know this is the know-it-all reporter talking). What's worse is that they didn't do it without being asked.

"The idea of helping with the convention center never came up. We were preparing ourselves for the next mission," said the 769th commander, Maj. Keith Waddell, according to an account in The Washington Post.

This was an engineering battalion, not trained in quelling civil disturbance. Fair enough. Then why issue them rifles, ammunition and helmets? Isn't the common denominator of being part of the state militia — in whatever function — that you are expected to restore order at times of popular rebellion?

The idea "never came up"? I personally doubt this. But if it's true, it makes the whole thing even more astounding.

By now, New Orleans has become an extremely orderly place. Rules are followed punctiliously. Everyone coloring inside the lines — it's a great system until the wind starts blowing really, really hard.

David Brown covers science and medicine for The Washington Post.

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