Friday, September 02, 2005

Self-Organizing in a Catastrophe

Like many others around the world, those fortunate enough to have been spared Hurricane Katrina, I have been watching the images on the media of those trapped in New Orleans' convention centre.

What does one do in a catastrophe like this? The situation on the Riverwalk is not one where each individual needs to employ your usual escape tactics ("walk down the stairs, don't run, to the nearest exit", etc.). It is a problem of self-organization and self-help while waiting for aid to arrive. We are hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with these cases if we follow the directions provided by public web sites like that from the Department of Homeland Security.

How do we quickly achieve order, organization and distribute the necessary skills and supplies within a stranded community without any assistance from the outside? From the comfort of an unravaged and still orderly town in New Hampshire I can only offer the following approach:

1) "Get Organized" (Structure): Segment people into communities of 15 or so people and find out who can/should lead them. Also find out, from that smaller group, what people can do (can they search? Build? Nurse/Heal? etc.)

2) "Clean Up / Stay Clean" (Sanitation): Keeping the group healthy and maintaining a sense of optimism often depends on maintaining a sanitary environment. It's tough ... but necessary. Although it is hard to put this topic here - You need to respectfully but efficiently take care of the deceased in an orderly way.

3) "Find Out What You Have and What You Need" (Supplies): Take an inventory of all supplies - Water, Liquids, Medicines, Food (yes - even chocolate or other sweets), Clothing, Tools, etc. Take an inventory of what you need and prioritize it.

4) "Start Getting the Leaders to Talk" (Communicate): Organize at a higher level to share information, needs, supplies, etc. Figure out how to distribute the supplies and skills you have. Make sure you prioritize - Triage! What/who is critical? What/who is not?

5) "Make the Call - Should We Stay or Should We Go?" (Strategy): I heard talk of making a pilgrimage across a bridge to get out of the Convention Centre. This may be a good thing for the healthy, strong and willful. Many will have to remain, but this is a tough call that needs to be made.

6) "Remain Hopeful and Optimistic" (Spirit): You can only control what you can control. Help will be on the way and there is often a reason why it is not coming as quickly as it can. Sometimes it's a good reason - sometimes not. But you need to remain hopeful that help will come ... but also that you and your group(s) can apply human ingenuity, talent and sheer hard work and overcome the disaster.

I know that the people of New Orleans have this in them. I know they are resiliant and tough. I also suspect that many are probably putting these tactics to use right now.

The prayers and hopes of the world are for the victims ... I know mine are.