How NOT to Handle a Crisis 101
(Fair warning – many of you may not like this entry…)
One of my enduring memories of the Katrina crisis, I think, will be that of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s hysterical media interviews and panicked blame-gaming. (Yes, I’ve seen the caricatures of Governor Blanco as Edith Bunker, but I guess she didn’t get as much air time…)
Why is it, do you suppose, that some people lose their heads in a crisis? More to the point, is calm in the face of major crisis an important quality for a leader?
As I watched Nagin on television, or read transcripts of his interviews, I was of two minds. Part of me (the emotional side) sympathized with his obvious anguish. But the rational side of my brain was taken aback. I mean...he was raving.
In recent days, I’ve moved far beyond that - to appalled, and somewhat angry. Because his panic did more than show he was completely unable to handle the crisis. Ultimately (with the help of the likewise-hysterical media), his lack of rationality may have undercut attempts to help the people he was elected to serve.
Everyone is not able to keep a cool head under pressure. Some people faint at the sight of blood, for instance. Others go into denial (this just can’t really be happening!). However, an elected official who is responsible for people’s lives in a disaster does not have the luxury of allowing emotions to direct his/her actions.
Even after the immediate, life-threatening crises had passed and the thousands of sufferers from the unspeakably vile evacuation centers had been bused or airlifted elsewhere, confusion haunted Nagin. His press conferences were continually described as “wide ranging” – meaning he could not stay on a topic. He bounced from issue to issue, usually finding time in every interview to blame somebody – anybody – for everything that had happened.
The hysteria seems to have finally departed (it’s been over a month, after all), but the blame-gaming and responsibility-ducking has not abated. Many recent reports have cited Nagin’s quotes and comments about roving bands, rapes and murders, etc. – that turn out to have been somewhat overplayed. Yet the Mayor’s office has stated that he was only repeating what he was told. By Compass? The media? Was Nagin out of the loop all the time?
I can understand people’s sympathy for this man. I share it. But I have far more sympathy for the people he let down.