They should have been here days ago. We’ve been sleeping on the ground like rats,� complained a 46-year-old Hurricane Katrina refugee.

“Bush should have returned to Washington at least a day sooner to head up rescue efforts,� opined a Fox News pundit.

It’s a sad law of safety spin control that the bigger the disaster, the longer the list of recriminations. They don’t come much more devastating than Katrina, with her storm waves possibly more than 50 feet above sea level. And so we’re overwhelmed by second-guessing.

Why didn’t the federal government provide buses for evacuation before the storm hit? Why was the response so fatally slow? How could the director of Homeland Security not imagine this worst-case scenario? How could the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s director be someone whose last job was lawyer for the International Arabian Horse Association? Plans should have been drawn up to evacuate New Orleans’ “low mobility� populace — the infirm, elderly, and poor without cars or other means of fleeing. The city’s mayor should have ordered the evacuation days earlier. Why couldn’t the state of Louisiana use its sizeable oil and gas revenues to build better walls around its most important city? The Army Corps should have made arrangements with contractors who had emergency supplies at hand, like sandbags or concrete barriers. All of Louisiana’s and Mississippi’s National Guard should have been mobilized before the storm.

Some traced the root cause of the calamity back 300 years, blaming New Orleans’ original settlers. Deciding to build the Big Easy on lowlands near the Big Muddy was probably a Big Mistake, wrote one columnist.

Déjà vu all over again

After covering the safety world for 25 years, it’s enough to make me cover my ears and run screaming from the house. It’s the same damn story repeated over and over. Safety’s version of the movie, “Groundhog Day.� Safety warnings are ignored. Safety budgets are axed. Other priorities take precedent. Safety projects, in this case flood control, offer no short-term political gain. (In business, it’s safety’s lack of bottom line gain.) Safety expenditures are not deemed worthy of the perceived risk (in this case an estimated $2.5 billion to expand New Orleans’ protective levees). So leaders gamble with safety, and lose. “Politicians were convinced that they had their 100-year event with [Hurricane] Camille,� in 1969, said one storm expert.

Every time disaster penetrates the public consciousness, we see once more how natural it is to gamble with safety. Go back to the night of April 14, 1912, and the most-widely publicized disaster of all. The Titanic’s captain behaved like he was trying to quickly escape the hazardous ice-field risk by going full speed, according to one historian. His officers dismissed seven ice warnings that day. The Titanic carried enough lifeboats for only half the estimated 2,200 passengers and crew. The lookout lacked binoculars. The crew was poorly briefed and barely drilled in evacuation procedures. The first lifeboat lowered had a capacity of 65 people, but left with only 28.

Why don’t these safety lessons ever sink in, no pun intended? Here’s the take of two physicians, writing on the barriers to better patient safety in the book, “Internal Bleeding�: Safety isn’t very telegenic, the docs have discovered. It’s easy to ignore. It produces “institutional yawns,� they write. Safety whistleblowers are branded fussy or malcontents or insubordinate (hello NASA). Asking leaders to invest time, money and attention before something happens, to prevent something from ever happening, is to “pitch a show about nothing,� according to the docs. What business can resist “stealing dollars or people from the safety cookie jar after a long period of no foul-ups?�

Or as the chairman of the geological engineering department at the University of Missouri-Rolla said, politicians refused to spend money before Hurricane Katrina to improve the levees to handle a Category 5 storm because of the low probability of such a storm occurring.

Won’t get fooled again

So what’s the answer to deep-rooted psychological inhibitions about safety? Surely something better than the oft-heard vow: We won’t get fooled again. “Unfortunately, our way for dealing with these disasters is after the fact,� said an engineering professor at Louisiana State University. New Orleans has built bigger and more ambitious levees every time the city floods, he said.

The same reaction plays out in industry all the time. After a British Petroleum refinery in Texas blew sky high this past March, killing 15 people and injuring 70, the company appointed a new refinery manager, a new health, safety and environmental manager, a new compliance manager and a new maintenance manager. It convened a “safety culture assessment panel� to audit every BP facility in North America. “We will do everything possible to ensure nothing like it happens again,� said a BP exec.

After The New York Times stung McWane, Inc. with a Pulitzer-Prize winning series of articles about McWane’s long history of injurious and sometimes fatal safety and environmental lapses, the company embarked on a safety crusade with born-again fervor. At its Union Foundry, safety initiatives have included OSHA and National Safety Council training, the formation of plant safety and guarding committees, and bulked up safety and health staffing. The foundry recently surpassed the million-hours-worked mark without a lost-time incident. Now it’s applying to OSHA’s elite Voluntary Protection Program.

The alternative to typical reactionary tactics is to be proactive, say safety experts. But being proactive, in the words of the authors of “Internal Bleeding,� means fretting about safety incessantly. Chronic unease is the price of safety, they insist.

But it’s not natural to live that way, fretting and uneasy. Eternal vigilance can be exhausting, just ask burned out safety and health pros.

Share the burden

Better to spread safety’s burden around, and make the responsibilities stick. Safety maven Dan Petersen calls it an accountability system. Define safety roles and expectations for everyone in the organization, provide training and tools, then measure performance. Correct performance when necessary, reward it when appropriate.

Katrina’s headlines — “Storm warnings weren’t heeded,� “Administration tries to shift blame for its own incompetence� — remind us safety is a perpetual struggle with human fallibility. Frustrating in the day-to-day, maddening in the face of terrible loss. Repeat after Dr. Petersen (and Dr. Deming and others): Plan-do-check-act. Plan-do-check-act. Repeat it until accountability — which will indeed cause chronic unease in an organization — is something we just learn to live with.

— Dave Johnson, Editor