Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Hesitation & the Fear of Appearing Silly

There has been a lot of finger-pointing regarding the emergency services provided (or not provided) in response to Hurricane Katrina. CNN has a whole list of questions to ask government officials at all levels. The Network quotes Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist: "One of the problems that we're facing at the federal level and at the state level and at the local level -- and again, not casting blame anywhere, is a total systemwide failure, because people making decisions hesitate."

It has been my experience that hesitation is as very human response to crisis. On the one hand, folks often really don’t know what to do. Problem solving frequently slows down and too often the available options are limited by they feelings of uncertainty that the approaching catastrophe generate. I have often seen people in crisis revert to the simplest of options: fight or flight.

The fight or flight response has also been called the "acute stress response.” It is what our basic animal instincts tell us to do when we encounter what we perceive as a threat: we can either face the threat ("fight") or attempt to avoid the threat ("flight"). It’s what I understand people did in the Katrina disaster. Some faced the threat by staying where they were—either because they thought they could “ride it out” or because they had no means of escape. Others fled before the hurricane arrived. That was the options that they gave themselves. The real tragedy, from my perspective, centers on those who desired to flee but did not have the means to do so—the poor, the handicapped, the ill, the hospitalized, the homebound, and those in nursing homes. The hesitation of the responsible officials to assist these folks was inexcusable.

I also recognize that there was hesitation even before the question of fight or flight—stay or leave—became the options of individuals. That was when the responsible officials delayed the order to evacuate those in the path of the on-coming hurricane. That delay, I want to suggest, came from another human peculiarity: the fear of making a mistake and appearing “inane.” The thought process of the decision makers may have gone something like this:

This is a strong and dangerous hurricane whose projected path indicates it will hit the area for which I am responsible.

Our response plan indicates that people should be removed from its path.

However, what if the hurricane either misses us or weakens in strength? If I order an expensive evacuation, won’t I be seen as being silly or inept?

I have seen this happen with churches and schools when snow or ice has been forecast. Those responsible for call off school or canceling a worship service hesitate. I have had church presidents telephone me as snow has been falling on a Sunday morning and say, “I don’t know if we should cancel today’s worship or not. Do you know what other churches are doing?” They are afraid of looking silly—of being the only church to cancel services—and thus being criticized for the act. Of course, the later one waits to take action, the more difficult it is to communicate a cancellation or closing to those who need to have the information.

I really do not know how much this human fear of appearing ridiculous for ordering an unnecessary evacuation resulted in the hesitation of authorities to order and implement the evacuation of the Gulf Coast as Katrina approached. Knowing human nature as I think I know human nature, I fear that it impacted the decision making process much more than it should have and resulted in a deadly calamity.

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