Posts Tagged ‘Hurricane Katrina’

Lesson from Katrina: Social sustainability matters

Five years ago this week, I sat glued to the TV watching the horrific aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Four years ago this week, I left the business I co-founded and headed down the path of sustainability. The first didn’t cause the second, but it certainly played a role.

Within five months of leaving my business, I visited New Orleans twice. The first time to see for myself what Katrina had wrought and the second to help gut flooded homes with a work crew from here in Portland, Ore.

Today, the images of Katrina and the outrage I felt at our country’s shameful response to the suffering in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are never far away.

Lower Ninth Ward resident outside her newly gutted home (January 2007)

For me, Katrina presented the human face of an unsustainable future and put the social in sustainability.

Less than a year after the storm, Al Gore raised my consciousness of climate change with his “An Inconvenient Truth.” As powerful as his message was, I knew when I moved my work into sustainability, Katrina wouldn’t let me forget the inconvenient truth of social inequity.

Climate change threatens to make matters worse by hitting those least able to deal with its consequences. But human-caused global warming wasn’t the issue in New Orleans. It was human-enabled neglect, whether it was the levee system, the evacuation plans, the people left behind as the storm struck or the needs of those trying to reclaim their homes and lives months and years later.

Inextricably linked

Environmental and social responsibility are inextricably linked. We can’t be satisfied with an ecologically pristine world where human inequality and injustice are allowed to flourish. Nor a world where justice applies to humans alone.

This is why the triple bottom line in business is so important. Business is a balancing act among financial, social and environmental responsibilities. Even if I believed the purpose of business is to create profits, which I don’t, I wouldn’t be able to ignore “how” those profits were made. Profits are essential to any business, sustainable or not. But if they’re consistently made while harming the environment or stakeholders (such as employees, customers, local residents, suppliers), then the business deserves any public wrath that comes it way.

Social sustainability lags environmental sustainability in business practice. Deloitte says this is due primarily to the absence of “a highly visible, well-established set of metrics for social sustainability” compared to environmental sustainability.

I also frequently hear comments from businesspeople about their struggles to define what social sustainability means for their organizations. And my non-exhaustive web search for a definition turned up little. Lacking a concrete, generally accepted definition, businesses are apt to give social sustainability more lip service than serious attention.

Beyond lip service

Yes, metrics are useful for holding your business accountable and for gauging and celebrating progress. And it helps to align your social responsibility initiatives with your core business objectives, as Harvard’s Michael Porter and others argue, “to produce profits and social benefits rather than profits or social benefits.”

I also think it’s possible to over-think things. More important is to take action now, even if just small steps, to create positive social impact. Because the opportunities for businesses to make a difference mount by the day. The Great Recession has taken a hurricane-like toll across much of the country. As I write this, fears of a double-dip recession are widespread.

Creating jobs sounds like the best social sustainability strategy for any business today. But ultimately that’s not enough. The US economy was humming when Katrina hit. The storm showed that at its heart social sustainability must be about fairness and compassion, hope and optimism, concern and resolve. In good times or bad, those are qualities that can always be in abundant supply.


Post-Katrina: Putting the human back in marketing

As I get ready for my summer vacation in the Northwest, my thoughts are in the South, specifically New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. That area is about to mark the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. No doubt residents fortunate enough to have homes and jobs and politicians and government officials charged with the region’s recovery will cite the many signs of progress. Others, with equal claim, will point to the vast stretches that have yet to recover, looking virtually as they did when the floodwaters receded.

My reflection is of a different sort. I only experienced the storm and its catastrophic aftermath through the media. A year after Katrina hit, I traveled along the Gulf Coast and into New Orleans. I needed to see with my own eyes what had happened. I returned to New Orleans a few months later as part of a volunteer crew that gutted and cleaned homes for a week. Needless to say, what I saw with my own eyes has left a lasting impression.

I realize now that Katrina is as responsible as anything for the shift I made in my work. I had spent 20 years in high tech marketing and was running the PR and advertising agency I co-founded in 1993 when all hell broke loose in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The storm and a tragically flawed response at all levels of government laid bare for the entire world to see the outrageous inequities and injustices that remain in our land of the free and home of the brave.

By coincidence, I departed my previous business and the high tech industry a year after Katrina hit. I had decided I needed to shift what I knew how to do — branding, marketing, communications — in support of businesses and organizations whose values and actions are making the world a better place. When I formed a new firm to work at the crossroads of sustainability and marketing, I wasn’t seeing sustainability through the single lens of saving the environment. As much as we humans have disregarded and damaged our natural world, we have caused no less harm to each other. Katrina was simply the most recent evidence.

Efforts to create a sustainable future must treat the Earth and all of its inhabitants as one. Sustainability isn’t saving the old growth in the Pacific Northwest forests and ignoring the rights of all humans to have their basic needs met and to live in peace. By this standard, green marketing falls short. Its preoccupation with promoting eco-friendly products is often little more than dressing up unsustainable consumption in a different color. Even more significantly, green marketing doesn’t go far enough to address the broader human and social dimensions of sustainability. If you’re a retailer touting your green product lines while paying employees low wages and no benefits, you fail the sustainability test.

Management guru Peter Drucker said the function of marketing is to create and keep a customer. In this post-Katrina world, maybe it’s worth remembering that customers are humans first. Forget that, and one day marketers will have no customers to keep.


Doctor is timely reminder of New Orleans poor

A year ago this week I was in New Orleans gutting flooded homes with a volunteer team from Portland. I had forgotten about this personal anniversary until this afternoon when I met a physician. She told me she has been practicing for four years in Portland. Before Portland? New Orleans, she said. Pre-Katrina she had worked in the emergency room of Charity Hospital. For eight years. My eyes widened. “Wow, you were on the front lines, weren’t you,” I said.

Here’s how author Jed Horne describes Charity in “Breach of Faith,” his powerful recounting of New Orleans during the storm and its aftermath:

New Orleans had been doing its birthing and dying at Charity, its ailing and its mending, nonstop mostly on the government’s dime, for about as long as the older patient’s had been alive. The mayor had been born in Charity, though one could confidently assume that he would not now seek its services except in the direst of emergency. The violence in New Orleans’s back streets had made its trauma center and emergency rooms as skilled as any in the South, and a mecca for interns with the gumption to endure permanent battlefield conditions.

I can’t fathom how this doctor I met worked there for eight years. She actually spoke fondly of her experience.

Today, Charity is closed, a victim of the hurricane and bureaucrats’ decisions. In addition to serving the largest number of indigent patients in the city, Charity was a teaching hospital. Officials at Louisiana State University plan to keep it closed and build a new teaching clinic in the city, but it won’t be open until at least 2012. A group of former patients have filed a lawsuit to “in an attempt to force the state to reopen Charity Hospital or make other provisions for thousands of people whose health has deteriorated without ready access to free medical care.”

That Charity will not reopen probably surprises no one in New Orleans. This was the hospital that was falsely reported by CNN to have been evacuated completely by Wednesday, two days after the hurricane hit. According to Horne,

(T)he reality was that twelve hundred staff and patients were still trapped in Charity, with diminishing supplies of food, water, and medicine…As the army kept Charity waiting until Thursday, helicopters were evacuating critically ill patients from Tulane University Medical Center, the private hospital right across the street.

On the medical, housing and just about any other front you want to consider in New Orleans today, the poor remain in dire straits. There are about 12,000 homeless in the city, double the number before the storm.

Meanwhile, our president in tonight’s state of the union address is supposed to announce a conference to be held in New Orleans. He wants the meeting to show “how the ‘great American city’ is rebounding.”

This from the president who could muster not a single reference to the plight of New Orleans in his address a year ago. New Orleans may be rebounding — for some — but don’t think for a moment that a positive spin will help those without a home or health care in the Big Easy sleep better tonight.

UPDATE: The president’s remarks were applauded by business leaders in New Orleans.


When will the tragedy end?

Here in Portland, many miles from the city of New Orleans, 100 or more evacuees from hurricanes Katrina and Rita have lost a vital piece of public assistance. Catholic Charities says it has exhausted all of its $350,000 in hurricane relief funds, ending what has been described as “Portland’s longest-running large-scale program” to help evacuees resettle in our community.

This is yet another reminder, if indeed you need one, that a great American tragedy is still unfolding, with no apparent end in sight. The two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is almost upon us. Soon media will descend upon New Orleans to report on the progress, or lack thereof. Some reporters will go looking for hopeful signs of recovery and find them. Others will bear witness to the thousands of still-empty and forlorn homes and commercial centers that cover wide swaths of the city. And they will ask incredulously why so little has changed two years removed from what the locals call The Storm.

Like thousands who have volunteered to help in New Orleans, I got up close and personal early this year with the physical and emotional devastation caused by the flooding. I was part of a volunteer crew that gutted homes for a week under the coordination of Medical Teams International. I interviewed homeowners and others while I was there. Our team coordinator Alex, a 37-year-old life-long resident of New Orleans, lost three friends to suicide in the course of three weeks in November and December 2006.

“Two were specifically related to the situation with their home and not to be able to get any headway, and basically living in cars. One of the guys actually hung himself at his house. The other guy shot himself. The third guy crashed his car.” A fourth friend killed himself with alcohol and pills just a couple weeks before we arrived. Same age as Alex, this guy had given him his first job in banking. Alex evolved that position into a lucrative financial career. Then the storm changed everything for everyone.

I have seen or read nothing that makes me believe the situation is vastly improved from what we saw back in January. My ears still ring with the words of Lee Eagan, an affluent local business owner whose family roots extend back hundreds of years in New Orleans. His home was spared by the flood, but hardly his emotions.

“I stand on my front porch. Two blocks from my house the water stopped. If I looked north from my house eight miles to the lake, everything flooded. If I look to the east, out this way, 23 miles, everything flooded. Now you do the math and you figure out how much geography, how many houses, how many people, how many photographs, how many wedding dresses were lost. And then you add it all up and you come up with one word: depression.”

It makes me wonder how those evacuees who had depended upon the generosity of Catholic Charities in Portland are feeling today.