The Red Cross has had better than a century to establish a system for a graduated response to disasters. There are pre-planned divisions of labor, paperwork, tracking systems, standards of care and stored equipment and supplies. Katrina threw all of that right out the window. There simply were not enough trained/briefed people available for the task. An abbreviated recruitment and training process was called for in order to field the thousands necessary to provide even the minimal services.
What this meant, in organizational terms, was the mobilization of a large number of people to represent the Red Cross who did not, in fact, understand the system they were working under. The fragmented communications and logistics of the operation meant that most of these personnel were left in the position of making up their own procedures as they went along. Some part of that group (myself for example) knew that we were working outside the norm. Others, unfortunately, have come away from the experience believing that these stopgaps and workarounds are the way it's supposed to work.
I have a name for these people: the Katrina Kowboys. Lest you think that judgmental, I count myself as a member of that group, and see their contribution to the relief effort as essential. Had they not stepped up to the challenge and been capable of functioning without the direction they ought to have had, there would have been no successes on the Gulf coast. The issue that arises for the organization is this; how to re-integrate the Kowboys, with their profound and well-established misunderstanding of procedure, into an organization so heavily process-driven?
For some, this will be impossible. For those who wish to continue volunteering, there needs to be a deliberate emphasis on training, and on re-training in those areas which were given only minimum attention in the few days before deployment to the Coast. Volunteers flexible enough to re-shape their thinking after the fact in this way will, I suspect, form the core personnel for any response to major disasters in the future.
Dale Austin, March 2006
The challenges this group represents for the organization became especially apparent during a week-long training institute held in Grand Rapids earlier this month. The Katrina experience was, by far, the greatest impediment to learning the Red Cross methodology. There was an ever-present group who could not refrain from explaining how they did it during their deployment, rather than acknowledge the course material which contradicted it. Each had developed their own version of the Red Cross, and was having an awful time letting it go.
Dale Austin, June 2006
All images and text Copyright Dale Austin, 1962-2008