Coronavirus is a wake-up call. Are you listening?
The ancient philosopher Heraclitus once opined that the only constant in life is change. But there is another one that impacts every city and county organization and the officials who manage them—sooner or later a natural or man-made event is going to wreak havoc with your organization’s operations. In some cases those operations will come to a screeching halt—if the organization doesn’t have continuity-of-operations or disaster-recovery plans in place.
At the end of March, as this article is being written, the global pandemic COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, is getting all of the headlines and commanding all of the attention of government officials, the media and the public, for very good reason. But there are many other significant events—e.g., wildfires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and hazardous materials spills—that happen on a fairly regular basis. These events can compromise a city’s and county’s ability to function effectively, which in turn diminishes their ability to provide essential services to the citizenry, sometimes profoundly.
Such events typically occur with little or no warning. When Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans in late August 2005, there was plenty of warning about the impending storm, but no one could have anticipated the devastating storm surge and flooding that destroyed much of the city. Nearly 400 miles to the west in Sugar Land, Texas, a suburb of Houston, we breathed a sigh of relief about the relatively close call. But that was because we had no way of knowing that our region was about to be inundated by ten of thousands of evacuees, which put a tremendous strain on government resources, an event for which we were ill prepared.
As if that wasn’t troubling enough, Hurricane Rita formed about a month later. It was the strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico, even more powerful than Hurricane Katrina. As the storm approached, the Houston region initiated the largest evacuation in the nation’s history. Cities in the region tried to maintain essential services and protect vital city assets, even as personnel evacuated. The hurricane ultimately made landfall along the Texas-Louisiana border, sparing the Houston region. Nevertheless, we had to scramble.
Both events caused problems that we hadn’t anticipated. Katrina required establishment or expansion of services needed to support the influx of evacuees. With Rita, we needed to compensate for the loss of staff, which necessitated scaling back some services. Nevertheless, we got through both events thanks to outstanding efforts by the mayor, city manager, police and fire chiefs, and a plethora of other officials, all of whom worked collaboratively, intelligently and quickly.
But everything we did was done on the fly—which is exactly the wrong way to go about it in such circumstances. A continuity-of-operations plan (COOP) and a disaster-recovery (DR) plan would have been very useful things to have at our disposal.
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