Whirlwinds and Fighting Words

Published on: 
Pharmaceutical Technology, Pharmaceutical Technology-10-02-2005, Volume 29, Issue 10

Confronted by a challenge as vast as Hurricane Katrina, we reach for military organizations for aid and military language for description.

Just three weeks after Hurricane Katrina bludgeoned a stretch of the US Gulf Coast the size of the British Isles, the storm is still the inescapable topic. New Orleans is already dry, but a new storm is whirling across the Gulf ready to drop a new load of water and woe somewhere on the western shore. Google reports more than 363 million Web references to "Hurricane Katrina." It's hard to believe that any words have been left unwritten, and I'm ashamed to even think about adding more.

Douglas McCormick

That's okay, though. I'm already ashamed—ashamed at the tardiness of our collective response and ashamed that all I have done so far is donate money. It's as though we all abandoned the American genius for collaborative action (already our defining characteristic when Alexis de Tocqueville noted it in 1840) and waited for somebody else to do something. (My secret excuses are that I have no rescue skills and that none of our vehicles has a gas tank big enough to get us into and out of the disaster area without becoming a rescue statistic ourselves.)

Correspondents groping for images to describe the devastation call it a war zone. The images of National Guard convoys throwing up wakes in the flooded streets are indelible. The region is under martial law. Critics charge that "generals fighting the last war" (apt for the US Army Corps of Engineers) designed the levee system to cope with Category 3 hurricanes like Betsy in 1965, although Category 4 or 5 storms were, and still are, inevitable.

In the early hours after the storm, people even sighed that New Orleans had "dodged the bullet," seemingly deaf to the irony in the phrase: a street-standard 9-mm slug travels about 350 m/s, crossing a football field literally in the blink of an eye. Nobody dodges a bullet: with planning, alertness, foresight, and enough time and distance, one can get out of the way before the trigger is pulled. Well, Nature pulled the trigger, and we all fell down.


So many of the millions of Katrina words have a military ring, they brought this military adage to mind: "Amateurs study tactics. Professionals study logistics."

"Evacuate the city" is a tactic. Having driver Jane Deaux in New Orleans School Bus #1234 on the corner of Desire and Law twelve hours before landfall with a full tank of gas, ten gallons of water, a box of MREs, a chemical toilet, a map of the route to Audubon Elementary School on Goodwood Boulevard in Baton Rouge, a list of twenty car-less people within three blocks, and the warm knowledge that her family has already taken the family Windstar north...that's logistics.

About a million Americans moved inland in the hours before Katrina struck. Operation Overlord pales by comparison. On D-Day, the Allies moved about 100,000 men across the English Channel, a feat that Historian John Keegan likened to moving every man, woman, child, and vehicle in Racine, Kenosha, and Green Bay across Lake Michigan in a single night. It took months of planning to collect transportation, stockpile supplies, and train the troops to move without running into each other too much.

At the end of August, ten times as many people—0.3% of the country's population—moved farther with little time, scant planning, and almost no preparation.

Not that planning is a cure-all. Here are two more armored maxims. "No plan of battle," said German tank pioneer Heinz Guderian, "ever survives contact with the enemy." His opponent, Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, added an important amendment: "In preparing for battle," he said, "I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." What one learns in planning—in enumerating assets, defining objectives, plotting routes, setting timelines—is vital to responding well when the plans themselves are in tatters.

Yet, we are oddly reluctant to admit that our plans will not survive contact with reality. In The Rational Project Manager, Andrew Longman and Jim Mullins remind their readers of the "Potential Problem Analysis," a long-established method for planning for the plan to break down (1).

Always ask very specific questions about basic cause-and-effect relationships to probe:

  • What could go wrong?

  • What would cause it to go wrong?

  • What can I do to stop it from going wrong?

  • What will I do if it does go wrong?

And what should we do if it does go wrong, if it seems that all Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are riding to hounds over the landscape? Well, we know where to start. To quote another great military historian, Woody Allen, "Ninety percent of success is simply showing up."

Douglas McCormick is editor in chief of Pharmaceutical Technology, dmccormick@advanstar.com

1. A. Longman and J. Mullins, The Rational Project Manager: A Thinking Team's Guide to Getting Work Done (Wiley, New York, NY, 2005), pp. 88–89.