“No Disaster Recommendations without Ramifications”

Mickey Glantz
24 May 2009

No Disaster Recommendations without Ramifications


Every assessment of a disaster, whether natural or human-caused, begins and ends with a list of recommendations or lessons learned. I have done that in my reports as well for almost four decades. The recommendations or lessons are about “how to get it right the next time there is a similar disaster?” That is always the hope. That is always the dream.

Many of those recommendations or lessons learned are right on target in terms of requirements needed to reduce the adverse impacts of the hazards of concern. They are the result of serious scrutiny of hazards, their impacts and societal responses to them. They are the findings through serious discussion, brainstorming and plain common sense of what went right, what went wrong, and what wasn’t considered. For Katrina, for example, America’s most costly and most embarrassing so called natural disaster, one can find thousands of lessons learned from various levels of government from local to global, industries and businesses. That is the good news. However, it is, all too often, good news in theory only. I say in theory because of a gut feeling have: that most recommendations are not acted upon. Phrased a different way, the disaster lessons we have been calling ‘lessons learned” are really not learned but only identified. When they are addressed they can legitimately be called lessons learned. Otherwise, they should be called “lessons identified”.

The problem in all this is that when recommendations and lessons have been identified, many observers in all walks of life tend to think that the recommendations and lessons are being enacted in order to avoid similar hazard-related disasters in the future. Given the reality of an issue-attention cycle of the American public that lasts but a couple of years (as identified by Anthony Downs in the early 1970s), for example, the public turns to focus on other pressing issues, no longer focusing on the previous disaster and its recommendations. How then can we get decision makers to take recommendations or lessons more seriously? How can we get them to realize that not following up on the lessons can have considerable costs?

It is essential to break the vicious cycle of disaster---lessons & recommendations--- disaster --- same lessons, etc. Many of the same lessons appear decade after decade. Our children and our children’s children will end up reading the same sets of disaster-related recommendations and lessons that our predecessors and we have been identifying. We can end the vicious cycle in the name of progress. It is a simple next step to take.

My recommendation:

Recommendations (and lessons learned) should no longer be presented without comment on what the consequences might be if the recommendations (and lessons) are not addressed. This way, decision makers can explicitly be made aware that there is also a likely cost for inaction when the next natural hazard turns into a national disaster. Succinctly stated, “NO RECOMMENDATIONS SHOULD BE OFFERED WITHOUT ALSO NOTING THEIR RAMIFICATIONS.”

The ramification (if my recommendation is not acted upon):

Business as usual (BAU) with regard to identifying lessons and making recommendations in post-disaster assessments will mean that policy makers in the future will continue to receive lists of lessons that had already been identified over previous decades and, as a result, their societies will continue to remain at risk to the impacts of hazards for which risks could have been reduced, had recommendations been pursued and identified lessons applied.

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