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Ilan Vertinsky: Chasing Storms Around the Globe

Five years ago two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, leaving fiery towers of smoke and flames, and thousands dead. Two years ago a tsunami slammed into Southeast Asia, leaving 200,000 bodies strewn along beaches or missing. Just last summer, Hurricane Katrina smashed into Louisiana, leaving moldy ghost towns and tens of thousands of refugees in her wake.

Business Professor Ilan Vertinsky is somewhat of a storm chaser; he looks into the eye of each storm as it sweeps through and tries to understand how governments and organizations respond to crisis. He was one of the first to analyze crisis management in the context of business organization, and the landmark paper he wrote about the topic in 1977 is still quoted today.

Vertinsky keeps a pair of running shoes in his office to sprint across campus in between classes. They could be a symbol for the pace of his life; he now consults for organizations and governments around the world.

The Eye of the Storm
"Crisis brings out the best and the worst in organizations," Vertinsky says. "It can become a focal point for renewal and reform, or influence organizations to act in ways that appear pathological."

It's not surprising that organizations sometimes fall apart. Crises are characterized by a high degree of uncertainty, intense time constraints and high stakes. For example, SARS affected 28 countries in just a few months, blindsiding health and government officials. "Business as usual" didn't work, Vertinsky says, so authority structures were forced to change, and harsh measures, including the suppression of civil rights, were legitimized.

Some crises, he says, bring people together. Think 9/11. Others, such as epidemics, often push people apart. And sometimes people react to disasters in habitual ways, patterning responses on past experiences, even though the magnitude of the disaster requires a new and novel response. Think Hurricane Katrina, which swamped rescue organizations in much the same way it swamped New Orleans.

"Often, there is a centralized response, where all the information goes to a small group of individuals who are far from the frontlines," Vertinsky says. Information overload leads to the screening of information and "group think" can take over. But centralization is usually necessary for efficient coordination, and strong, charismatic leadership is critical in mobilizing resources, breaking through constraints and reassuring the public.

"Global communications, including the Internet, have given individuals unprecedented power to bring an issue to the top of the world's agenda," Vertinksy says. China didn't respond to SARS -- even as fatalities mounted and the disease migrated to other countries -- until a retired Chinese physician sent a press release to the media. After the story was picked up worldwide and had begun to threaten Chinese prestige, the country responded with a vigorous about-face.

The Aftermath
"Finger pointing immediately after a crisis can interrupt reform," says Vertinsky. "After Katrina, people began blaming FEMA, city officials and the federal government rather than looking for the larger lesson, which might be that it's not wise to build in flood plains."

As the impact of the catastrophe is absorbed, people allocate resources toward "fixing" the problem, but the public has a short attention span. Within a year or so people often forget about their commitment and move on. "If two or three years go by and avian flu doesn't hit, there will be nothing visible for the money spent and people will say that resources should go to fix 'real' problems."

Allocated resources should be managed wisely, with future response plans carefully targeted, Vertinksy says. "Homeland Security is oriented toward terrorist and biological attacks while overlooking the threat of an attack in the form of a pandemic. And the solution is sometimes in the details. If a pandemic occurred, a key hospital employee might be the janitor with the set of keys to emergency supplies."

Domestic politics can hamper a response, and international organizations add another layer of politics. During the SARS crisis, the World Health Organization issued a Canadian travel ban, which turned the health crisis into an economic crisis. Canada put forth a tremendous lobbying effort, which resulted in the ban being lifted -- too early, as it turned out. Unusual situations requiring unusual strategies are tricky for politicians. Decision-makers who impose quarantines or close airports need to understand the social and economic implications of their actions -- avian flu has sometimes been called the "economic flu" -- but they need to take strong measures when necessary. And ethical questions must also be debated in the aftermath of a crisis to determine trade-offs between individual rights and collective safety.

On a Personal Note
Vertinsky himself would be stymied if a travel ban were instigated. He logs hours on planes around the globe, interspersing international teaching and consulting with exploration of far-flung cities. "I love old cathedrals, art galleries and scenic drives in the mountains," he says. "I've probably seen more of the Alps than the Cascades."

But Vertinsky always likes coming back to Salem. "When I first came to Willamette I fell in love with this place. It's inspirational to walk to campus, with its river and sense of preservation. There is a display of good taste here." In other words, it's a peaceful refuge for someone who analyzes catastrophe on a daily basis.