Hurricane Katrina has demonstrated again how missing and misplaced communication can make a disastrous situation catastrophic. From claims by FEMA officials that they knew nothing of the horrendous conditions at the Convention Center to images of the president with agency and military leaders seemingly standing around talking instead of ordering in troops and supplies, poor communications led to a complete breakdown of trust in administrative leadership and to deaths of initial survivors. For the most part, stranded residents found relief and gratitude only in seeing the military arrive, which, when it occurs on a large scale, can be an early step toward authoritarian rule. The most effective civilian organization in reaching and supplying the citizens of New Orleans turned out to be Wal-Mart, which had a strong communication network among its stores and distribution centers, as well as pre-positioned supplies ready to roll.

The breakdown in civil order and the loss of confidence in elected officials may have begun with the federal government’s late understanding of the potential severity of Katrina, lulled by her last-hour turn to the east, and the failure of planners to communicate the importance of upgrading Louisiana levees to protect against this level of disaster. The claims of insufficient budget for prevention sound meek and whiny today.

What’s most important to communicate now to businesses across the nation is that all your crisis planning, however detailed, cannot anticipate every eventuality. After their initial impact, crises are just as likely to grow worse as to diminish; and Plan B may require Plan C, D or E as resources go offline or under water.

The only way to stay on top of the wave and rapidly alter the course of your response is through intense and constant communication. Yes, in your crisis plan, include alternative locations, easily accessible and safely stored stocks of supplies and offsite data storage. But don’t skimp on the technology and processes you’ll need to communicate. When the power goes down, cell phones, cordless phones and Internet connections stop working. Even with underground phone cables, the phone system is likely to be overloaded and largely inaccessible in a crisis. Even if your emergency generators can keep your IT system cranking, chances are that employees and the public have no way to get online to receive your messages.

Consider making arrangements for quick delivery of satellite phones, the one way responders were able to continue communicating long after Katrina has passed. Urge your community to create a wireless infrastructure that is secured as much as possible from external forces and is capable of being powered by generators. Keep sufficient supplies of laptop batteries (charged from your generators) so at least a few hours of communication may be available through intact wireless networks.

In addition, plan in advance the ways and the locations where you will communicate directly with news media and social service agencies so they understand your precise needs or, conversely, your ability to help others.

Clearly, the only way to do something about the weather is to talk about it—communication that leads to creative solutions as the unfortunate becomes the unexpected.

— Steve Friedman