Was the Sewol Korea’s Katrina?

By now everyone is familiar with the South Korean disaster this past April – the sinking of the MV Sewol and the loss of almost 300 passengers, most of which were high school students, and to date, two divers involved in the recovery of the bodies.  The vessel was carrying almost 4000 tons of cargo – over 4 times its rated limit.  The morning of its fateful trip, the top-heavy Sewol took on water and capsized.  A lack of leadership on the vessel resulting in confusion, trapping hundreds in a watery grave.  This would be a horrific disaster for any nation to face.

Through the years we’ve seen numerous ferry boat disasters around the world, most of which are off the shores of developing nations – those with few if any safety standards and a lack of regulatory and enforcement agencies.  Rarely, however, do we see ferry boat disasters occurring in developed nations.  In many regards we consider South Korea our peer and sometimes even an innovator, especially in the areas of technology and engineering.  It seems, however, that regulation has not kept up with innovation.  South Korea’s response efforts have also been criticized.

In 2005, the United States suffered the impacts of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast.  Over 1800 people lost their lives.  The disaster within the disaster was how poorly our emergency management system worked.  Their were failures at higher levels of Federal and State government, resulting in response delays and poor coordination and delivery of resources.  FEMA was blamed for most of these failures.  People were fired or asked to resign and new plans were created and implemented – most of which at the behest of legislators.

Now in South Korea in the wake of the ferry tragedy, their federal government is on the verge of launching a new national safety agency, meant to usurp responsibilities from various other federal agencies including the Ministry of Security and Public Administration, the National Emergency Management Agency, the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, and the Coast Guard.  Change is clearly needed, but will a new organization bring about the changes needed to protect the citizens of South Korea?

We tend to see a great deal of change when tragedies such as this occur.  Obviously changes need to be made, but few accept responsibility.  Changes also seem to be made to give the illusion of progress, with no real plans set in place to address the underlying issues that exist.  It seems people feel that change itself will provide the fixes which are needed.  We’ve seen reorganizations put in place at FEMA on several occasions, intended to streamline or address dysfunctionality.  We’ve seen the same happen with the American Red Cross – who seems to alternate between two different organizational models with each decade.  Just recently the Secretary of the Veterans Affairs Administration resided amidst their scandal – activities which have taken place quite a distance from his post, activities which you hear little responsibility taken by the individual hospital administrators where it truly lies.

It’s not to say that all organizational change is unnecessary.  Organizations are organic, living, breathing entities – not static creations.  They must evolve and adapt to continue being successful.  That doesn’t mean, however, that every occurrence of negative press necessitates an organizational change.  Organizational changes are expensive in time, money, and the anxiety of employees.  They stall out progress of the organization until rebuilding is complete, then progress resumes slowly as the kinks are worked out.  Many think a plan for reorganization is simply drawing a new organization chart and that its implementation, after the firing of a few people and handing out new titles to others can be implemented overnight.  This, clearly, is fundamentally wrong.  Consider that even small businesses put a great deal of time into creating business plans which outline the resources, organization, and strategy of a new company.

I would challenge that it’s the people and the culture of these agencies that need to change.  Certainly they need new or different approaches to problems, some adjustments in their chain of command, and the tools to do their jobs better.  A radical reorganization should only take place if it’s completely necessary.  Consider what the creation of DHS has done for us – yes, their have been some improvements in prevention, preparedness and response; but at what cost?  A massive umbrella agency with coordination and leadership problems of its own.  DHS didn’t escape Katrina unscathed either due to its position between the FEMA Administrator and the President.

It seems that reorganization is the easy knee-jerk answer to problems.  Let’s slow down a bit, assess the failures and their causes, and address the internal problems first.  Without doing so, new agencies and new titles will carry the same problems.

© Timothy Riecker 2014

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