This is the fifth installment in a series of ten articles about the Discovery Channel Series, The Colony [airing Tuesdays at 10PM ET/PT], which follows the lives of ten volunteers living in a simulated post-catastrophic environment.
Last night’s episode presented the Colonists with the opportunity, when they scavenged a stock of abandoned solar panels, to increase their electricity and power capabilities. But the experiment took a violent turn when a stranger breached the warehouse’s security system and tried to steal their supplies. This latest attack on the volunteers’ sense of security and order had a silver lining, though: It served as the catalyst that the Colonists required to finally create a set of rules – a Constitution, so to speak – that would govern how they would live their daily lives.
However, even with a few “laws” in place, the volunteers still lack a working government, a hierarchy to distribute their collective and individual workloads, and a leader to guide them swiftly, and safely, through the numerous crises they are facing. The Colonists are content to lead by committee. However, there have been instances in which certain individuals have taken control of a project or issue, even at the risk of creating internal conflict within the group.
Leadership can be distributed during normal times, but there still has to be a final decision-maker, someone who is responsible for the direction and success of the group as a whole. In times of major crisis or disaster, the need for solid leadership becomes paramount.
The Worst Scenarios – When the Nation Was Least Prepared
Hurricane Katrina was the largest and most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history, a catastrophic event the scope and destruction of which severely tested all levels of governments both in the regions directly affected and in the nation as a whole. The incident immediately overwhelmed local, state, and federal responders, and required outside support and action from across the country.
After-Action Reports (AARs), later investigative reports from the Government Accountability office (GAO), media articles and analyses, and public opinion all pointed to leadership – actually, the lack thereof – as a key area in need of improvement. The breakdown, at all levels of government, in leadership, authority, and accountability before, during, and in the aftermath of Katrina was largely responsible for the slow response times and lack of coordination so tragically evident at that time.
However, a more unexpected, and even more catastrophic, example followed the terrorist attacks against the United States on 11 September 2001. There were dozens of individual command posts trying to manage the massive response in New York City alone, but it was not until New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani stepped forward and established a unified command post that all of the by-then desperate agencies – although obviously well intentioned – started to work together in a cohesive (and therefore more effective) fashion to manage the limited resources available and create some order out of the chaos that reigned.
Until then, a leadership vacuum had been created by the death of many in the primary and secondary leadership levels within the local/regional agencies most affected, particularly the New York Police Department (NYPD), the New York Fire Department (FDNY), and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ). Most of the departments involved had continuity-of-operations plans in place for continuing essential services as well as relocation and recovery operations, but very few had continuity-of-government (COG) plans.
JFK’s Forward-Looking Vision
During a major or catastrophic disaster – i.e., one in which members of the existing leadership hierarchy are emotionally, physically, or mentally unable to carry out their responsibilities – COG plans provide the framework needed to ensure that a capable substitute leadership hierarchy would still be available.
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy created a forward-looking continuity-of-government program the purpose of which would be to shield the essential infrastructure of the U.S. government from total destruction and, by doing so, permit the continued operation and authority of the nation during future times of crisis. The COG program was intended, among other things, to: (a) preserve the American form of representative government; (b) provide continuity of federal authority; and (c) help law-enforcement agencies, at all levels of government, ensure the general safety and protect the government itself from the illegal assumption of power by rival foreign powers and/or anti-government organizations. The program was later expanded to encompass all federal departments and require them to create their own internal lines of succession and continuity plans.
Today, the creation and, if and when necessary, implementation of a viable continuity-of-government plan has become a “best practice” throughout the country for local and state governments as well as the federal government. Theea of creating lines of succession, however, probably should be further extended to include community organizations, non-profit groups, businesses, and even families. In short, someone – preferably the best-qualified person available – must take the leadership role of almost any organization in order to quickly make decisions and move through the recovery process.
So far, the volunteers who make up the Colony have been surviving from week to week, and have even improved their overall condition – to some extent. However, the lack of leadership within the group has caused internal conflicts to mount, has left the volunteers vulnerable to safety and security risks, and has slowed their progress. Trying to effectively respond and recover during a crisis or disaster, without clear leadership, is akin to raking one’s lawn with a shovel. In other words, it can be done, theoretically, but it will take a lot longer to do it.
Adam Montella is vice president of homeland security and preparedness services for Previstar Inc. and a nationally known emergency-management and homeland-security professional with more than 23 years direct experience in both government and the private sector. He served as the first general manager of emergency management for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the period following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and has served in many other emergency-management positions at all levels of government. A former member of the House Operations Recovery Team of the U.S. House of Representatives and of numerous local, state, national, and international emergency management associations, he also is a well known public speaker in his chosen field and a former recipient of Harvard University’s prestigious Innovations in American Government Award.