Lessons From Katrina and Other Mega-Disasters

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As our country confronts the coronavirus pandemic, there are lessons we can and should learn from previous mega-disasters.  Although Hurricane Katrina was far different from the COVID-19 pandemic in so many ways, the worst natural disaster in American history, which struck the Gulf Coast nearly 15 years ago, has powerful lessons for us today.

First, no government, however big and powerful, can solve every problem that may strike every household or business all the time. Frankly, we shouldn’t want a government that powerful or expensive, or it would take away our freedoms.

As happened during Katrina, however, government has ramped up to respond to an unprecedented catastrophe. And, as with Katrina, there is criticism of governments’ decisions and efforts. I recall vividly that during Katrina I was attacked for not being critical of the federal response. And, yes, FEMA’s execution of its logistical plan failed. But every governmental entity involved in responding to the storm made mistakes, including the state of Mississippi, which I led at the time. 

In any mega-disaster there is a fog-of-war component to the response. You are making it up as you go along. Decisions must be made, but some won’t produce the best outcomes. When that happens, you admit the decision needs to be changed and change it. Then move forward. 

Ultimately, the federal government did a whole lot more right than wrong during Katrina. Those actions were vital to our recovery and to the renewal of the Gulf Coast and south Mississippi. But don’t expect any level of government to be perfect, error-free.

During Katrina I worked closely with President George W. Bush who, like me, is a Republican. During the BP oil spill, I worked closely with President Barack Obama, a Democrat. Getting things done during disasters means setting partisanship aside. President Trump should be praised for doing more and more of that, for example, with Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has taken practical, timely steps to help his fellow New Yorkers.           

In a mega-disaster -- whether an unprecedented hurricane pushing the greatest storm surge recorded in the history of meteorology or a pandemic that might be the worst in the lifetime of anyone alive today -- families and businesses must be prepared or quickly learn how to reduce their risks.

Because COVID-19 is a new strain doesn’t mean we can’t quickly learn to aggressively practice proper personal hygiene, self-quarantine, avoid crowds. And when you must shop or go out to find food, keep proper distances between you and fellow human beings. If you must go to work rather than work remotely, which is preferable, maintain the requisite space between you and your colleagues.  Of course, there are many more lessons, but these are easy to find. With 24-hour news channels and digital sources inundating us, it is hard not to learn multiple ways to avoid contact with the virus. 

Taking care of yourself, your family and your business won’t be easy, but you will learn and, in most cases, have probably already realized what you need to do. So, do it.

Another lesson from past mega-disasters is the importance of helping others, especially family, friends and neighbors who need our help.

My mother, who raised me and my two older brothers, used to say, “Crisis and catastrophe bring out the best in most people; crisis doesn’t create character, crisis reveals character.” 

That was certainly the case in Mississippi during and after Katrina. Neighbors, who had lost everything they had during the storm, afterwards were carrying food and supplies to the little old lady across the street who was a shut-in.

In the 12 months after the hurricane, 400,000 volunteers from out of state came to Mississippi to help clean up and rebuild. In the process, they registered with faith-based, non-profit, or government organizations. By the fifth year, that number had risen to 970,000, many of whom returned time after time.

I remember talking to hundreds and hundreds of them. Their most common refrain was, “Governor, I feel like I got more out of this for myself than the good I did for the people I came to help.”

Helping others who need help in dealing with or recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic is the very essence of the American way. Obviously, the ways to provide assistance differ from a catastrophe like Katrina. With COVID-19 you check on people by phone rather than visiting them in person. Call first, then leave a meal or medications at the front door. Adjust your method of contact, but learn to deliver the needed support or supplies.

Take care of yourself, your family and your business. But also make the effort to help others who might have trouble taking care of themselves during the pandemic. Be an example of my mother’s adage, “Crisis doesn’t create character; crisis reveals character.”


Haley Barbour is former governor of Mississippi, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and founding partner of BGR Group.

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