Crisis management during gigantic catastrophes: a column by Ingo Plöger

by Ingo Plöger*

Those in charge of organizations are rarely prepared to manage large-scale natural crises, that is, catastrophes of gigantic order. Floods, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, fires, avalanches, terrorist attacks, are a few examples that are occurring around us and claiming hundreds and thousands of precious lives.

When one of these catastrophes of gigantic proportions occurs, all of us who are in command of nations, states, organizations, companies, directly involved in the governance of the crisis are amateur managers, as we have never had similar experience.  The characteristics of gigantic catastrophes, for the crisis manager, are very similar, and although we were amateurs, we do have the capacity to learn from those who have already gone through this experience. The earthquake in Turkey, the floods in India, Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster in Japan and the floods in Qatar teach us something we can learn from to reduce the effects of future catastrophes.  According to experts who have already experienced catastrophes of gigantic dimensions, in the first moments of the surprise, which catches us unprepared, where several factors at the same time take us completely out of normality and remove any control over the situation from the manager. It’s like in aviation when the aircraft stalls and loses lift where no command obeys the pilot. It’s chaos that sets in and leaves everyone in command without any direction, without any consistent information and often, a feeling of panic sets in.

Catastrophes of gigantic proportions go through four stages:

1. Chaos

2. Emergency

3. Urgency and

4. Priority

In the worst phase of Chaos, which always sets in, the manager needs, no matter how difficult it is, to remain cool enough to show those he leads that he can face this difficulty and avoid panic among team members, or in the population. The Chaos phase can take between 1 to 3 days or more, depending on how the leader gets some control back. Taking the situation into account, it is essential to gather rudimentary information and start to manage it. Call national or international experts who have managed major catastrophes. Nowadays, this expertise in-person or virtually is valuable to get the best outcomes. I call these experts ‘crisis pilot’. This person, with ship pilots at any port, knows all the nuances and dangers of the port, directs the ship’s captain to carry out docking operations, without the risk of running aground, crashing, etc.  The Pilot will immediately guide the crisis manager on the measures that, upon leaving Chaos, he will have to take to face emergencies. Perhaps this is the crisis manager’s greatest difficulty, recognizing swiftly that he alone will not be able to overcome crisis without the help of skills external to his team. It requires humility and recognizing your impotence and, on the other hand, joining unconventional forces for unexpected results.  As the most affected population is the first to seek external assistance, organizing the stages will become much more difficult to manage. Civilian mobility is very large, and in general much greater than public mobility, but completely disorganized. They obtain material and immediate help, but most of the time there is too much or too little, as they are unaware of the reality of the ongoing disaster. The combination of the civil and public moment is the art of creating the right Crisis Committee. In most cases, the public force takes over the Crisis Committee and leaves the civil force out and realizes that although it has received the material and people it needs, it is unable to organize these efforts.

The Pilot will immediately seek out civil organizations with greater organizing capacity (business organizations, civil organizations with large capillarity such as churches, schools, etc.) that receive local information and order the supply locally, into the Crisis Committee. Knowing where the crisis is fundamental, hence the help of satellite images, dividing the territory into impact clusters, and establishing formal and informal channels of connection with leaders in the field and at the Committee. All this in a few hours and days.  The leader in question will have to try to get out of Chaos and Emergency as soon as possible.  If this situation takes longer than it should, symptoms of exhaustion will appear in both the Crisis Committee and civil leaders. The shift system for 24-hour service needs to be organized in the first few hours, otherwise exhaustion leads to wrong decisions and service does not occur. Through the clusters, you can concentrate rescues and provide traction for save provisions.  The Emergency phase cannot abide by existing rules and is the most common reason for delaying measures and increasing the effects of the catastrophe. It’s like an ambulance, which, when passing by with its siren and emergency lights, can take routes completely outside the rules to save a patient, and everyone in traffic knows this and gives way. In catastrophes, few countries or states have Emergency rules, and bureaucracy takes over the process, which is completely inefficient for this situation. In the Emergency phase, civil power assumes large proportions in terms of humanitarian aid, however, is lacking all the logistics and organization of aid, which necessarily needs to be organized by public forces.

Civil Defense should normally have this capacity, but it also finds itself in hierarchies where the Armed Forces often interfere directly, this is where the Pilot together with the Crisis Manager need to act. What is more difficult is that disasters happen in regions smaller than an entire country, therefore, the highest-ranking manager, who can be a Governor or a Mayor, are the Crisis Managers, and need to seek help in the federative areas. Another obstacle of hierarchies that needs to be overcome.

The Urgency phase begins when the direct effect of the catastrophe diminishes, for example, the rivers, after a flood like the one that occurred in Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, return to their beds, and the flooded cities emerge from the mud. The Urgency phase, already being planned by the Crisis Committee during the Emergency phase, establishes the steps on how to bring humanitarian solutions to people displaced from their homes. It can take months, as not everything can be built again as it was before.  It is in the Urgency phase that the Priority phase is planned, where some difficult decisions will have to be made in advance, such as, for example, not rebuilding, but building again and perhaps in a different location. This requires active communication from the leader, giving hope to those who lost everything that the recovery will be better than what they no longer had. The “reconstruction syndrome” sets in quickly in the Emergency and needs to be very well directed, otherwise something will be built again that even caused greater losses and in the wrong way. These are post-catastrophe innovations that need to be communicated very efficiently, to make everyone involved understand that from then on, they will have new solutions to reduce surprises and be better prepared. For example, general alarms on the population’s cell phones with warnings of catastrophes and indications by region of what to do. Install “Crisis Lighthouses” which are safer places, offering energy-independent communication and first aid stations. Procedure flaggers, and Crisis Volunteer Brigades who will receive training and procedures and will be the future cluster managers. The preventive will be very well received and will be the most orderly civil force. Large-scale crisis management can last for years, and the Crisis Committee must last this long with different responsibilities per phase.

This is the ideal process, when leaders believe in shared solutions. But what have I learned and realized when major catastrophes happen?

1. That leaders are unaware of the phases of crisis management

2. State institutions do not have rules for emergencies or urgency. Or if they do, they don’t put them into practice

3. Those involved do not know well what the governance of the crisis and the decision-making of the manager and his superior peers or national and international collateral will be like

4. Those involved have no idea of ​​the strength of civil organizations or how to order traction

5. They underestimate from the beginning the importance of ‘crisis practice’ and who knows how to do better by getting to know areas and people

6. When exhausted, the “I’m in charge here” syndrome makes decision mistakes become fatal

7. That the misunderstood “sovereignty” syndrome leads false leaders to measure strength instead of adding skills and to an unintentional arrogance for the position they hold and not for the function to be performed

8. Communication needs to be linked to the specific phase and the needs of that situation. During an emergency, is not the time to publicly address issues that refer to priorities.

9. Psychological support is underestimated at all stages. Fear, despair, and lack of hope are elements that need to be addressed in time.

10. The crisis manager, at the same time must inspire confidence that she is in charge and knows what is happening, needs to inspire the next stage. Some visions need to be communicated so that hope does not fade.

Crisis Management, above all, is leading in total insecurity, seeking wisdom in those who can best help, being humble enough to recognize his need to share, and choosing the best of the best to be with him, because lives are too valuable to be object of inexperience, vanity, power and ambition in moments of tragedy.

*Ingo Plöger is a Brazilian entrepreneur, President of CEAL Brazilian Chapter

  1. https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/reports/katrina-lessons-learned/chapter5.html
  2. https://crisis-prevention.de/katastrophenschutz/unwetterereignis-im-sommer-2021-strategien-fuer-nrw.html

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