Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Poor communication – catapulting into crisis

What we have here is a failure to communicate.” – Cool Hand Luke

In my last post, I mentioned the chemical leak that left 300,000 without water in West Virginia and the massive traffic mess caused by a January snowstorm in Atlanta.  Although different incidents of very different types, they have one thing in common:  a crisis caused by poor communications.

I could go into great detail about the particulars of each event, but both had good coverage by the media (In addition, Colonel Alicia Smith of the National War College and I have written a fairly in-depth account of the West Virginia water contamination incident for the National Hazards Observer.).  Briefly, a leak from a storage tank in West Virginia led to contamination of the drinking water for 300,000 West Virginians, and loss of water service for over two weeks.  In Georgia, a massive winter snow storm led to thousands stranded on highways, some for as long as twelve hours.

Instead, I want to look at what’s needed for good communication and show how poor communications catapulted these situations into crises.

At its heart, effective communication is very simple:  [person, organization ...] “A” develops a message and delivers it to [person, organization ...] “B” (and maybe  a host of others) who receives it and acts on it.  As with most things in real life, though, the devil is in the details.

•  First and foremost, “A” must deliver a message.  In West Virginia, Freedom Industries (FI) did not notify the state or local communities that a leak had occurred.  The state or local communities had no idea what had happened until several hours after the leak started.  Further, FI’s one press conference was a monument to misinformation.  In Georgia, there apparently was almost no communication among the various jurisdictions involved.  Result:  no coordinated response.  Further, neither the state nor the city of Atlanta reached out to their citizens and businesses in any meaningful manner to try to coordinate the exodus from the city (The one shining light in this respect was the Atlanta School District which staggered school closings.).

•  “A” and “B” must both understand what they’re talking about.  Three months prior to the West Virginia incident, FI’s management team had been told that there were questions about the integrity of their chemical storage tanks, including the one that eventually leaked.  Unfortunately, none of FI’s upper management had technical training so they didn’t understand what the experts were saying.  It was not so much that FI’s management didn’t heed the message as that they didn’t understand it.  In Georgia, state leaders either didn’t listen to the state meteorologist, or, more likely, simply didn’t understand what he was telling them.

•  The message must be clear.  The night before the snow started to fall in Georgia, the National Weather Service (NWS) began issuing winter storm advisories.  Unfortunately, NWS’s advisories did not convey a clear warning of the potential impact until after the snow had already started to fall in Georgia.  In West Virginia, American Water apparently was initially misinformed about the chemical released and the ability of its treatment facility to decontaminate the incoming water.

•  The message must be timely, i.e., “B” must be able to take appropriate action.  By the time the NWS began sending out accurate warnings, people already were at work or school.  Similarly, by the time American Water realized that they could not decontaminate the incoming water supply, they were faced with the choice of either allowing the contaminated water to pass through their treatment systems or to stop water needed for fire protection and sanitation systems.  In effect, a Hobson’s choice.

•  The message must be accurate.  In West Virginia, early press accounts emphasized the chemical’s “toxicity,” playing on people’s fears.  While the leaked chemical apparently can cause skin rashes and respiratory problems at higher concentrations, there actually was little real danger to the population.

•  The message must be believed.  People in Georgia were slow to recognize that the situation was as bad as it became.  In West Virginia, while the Governor’s office apparently borrowed a few pages from Haley Barbour’s book on crisis communications, the credibility of their messages was undermined by a wishy-washy statement from the CDC and by state legislators eager to showboat before the voters.

The West Virginia chemical leak would most likely not have had the devastating impacts it did if there had been more effective communications among all parties.  State and local authorities should have known what chemicals were stored, approximate amounts, and – ideally – the condition of the storage tanks.  In conjunction with Freedom Industries, American Water and other stakeholders, local authorities should have worked through leak scenarios to determine the cascading impacts, and made joint plans to avoid them.  This would have illuminated Freedom Industries’ lack of preparation, and led to a more coordinated response.  Finally, the entire sequence of events highlights how parties like the CDC and the state legislature can add fear and emotional suffering to an already bad situation.

The same holds true for the massive gridlock in Atlanta.  If the affected jurisdictions (the state, several counties and municipalities) had worked through tabletop exercises together based on winter storm scenarios, they would have developed plans and protocols to assure more coordinated action.  If the NWS and the state of Georgia or the city of Atlanta had communicated more effectively, the exit of people from the city would have started earlier and gone much more smoothly.

These two incidents point out yet again that community resilience is not just about resources, it’s about connections that allow communities to use their assets most effectively.  These incidents also indicate that action is an appropriate metric for communication.  In both cases, better communication likely would have led to coordinated and effective action.  Instead, a situation that could have been contained was catapulted into a crisis.