Times of crisis have a way of bringing out both the best and the worst in organizations. They reveal strengths and weaknesses. Rarely was this as apparent as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Catastrophic events like Katrina often function like a microscope, revealing aspects of a business that would otherwise remain hidden just below the surface. Place a large sample of companies under extreme duress for a short period of time and you will see just which organizations are the most adaptable, who’s most resilient and who’s most fragile.

For example, oil refinery Valero Corp. managed to get its St. Charles facility, located near a swamp between the Mississippi River and flooded Lake Pontchartrain, back up and running a full eight days before the Shell refinery across the street from them. Similarly, vacuum cleaner manufacturer Oreck Corp. reopened its Long Beach, Miss. plant on Sept. 9, the first major industry in the area to resume operations after Katrina.

So why were these two companies able to return to work when so many others in the area have not and probably will not ever? Companies like Marriott Hotels and Gulf Marine, a provider of food to Gulf Coast cargo ships, have struggled to locate their employees, let alone get their operations back up to anything approximating full speed. And yet Valero and Oreck have managed get back to work in almost record time.

These are very different companies in very different industries. About their only similarity is in how they put their people first during this emergency. For example, Valero continued paying employees during the period when operations were down, provided them with temporary housing, and supplied them with free gas and other necessities. Oreck assembled a company town in the parking lot of their Long Beach, Miss. plant, a village of trailers where newly homeless employees could take refuge.

Such measures are typical of these organizations’ people practices, practices that pre-date Hurricane Katrina and are woven into the fabric of their corporate cultures. For example, Valero emphasizes employee respect, safety and job security in their workplace practices. They have a no-layoff policy, insist that safety rules be followed to the letter and have been known to fire executives who addressed their subordinates in a disrespectful manner.

If these organizations succeeded, it was in part because they had fostered a sense of loyalty and ownership in their people. For example, an Oreck employee chain-sawed his way into the plant and reported back to CEO David Oreck on its condition. Another employee’s son built a bare-bones web site where employees could get information on the company and each other’s whereabouts. Similarly, a skeleton crew rode out the hurricane at the company’s St. Charles facility, helping the facility get a jump start on the recovery process.

Conversely, Katrina also revealed how poor leadership and a negative workplace can undermine an organization’s mission and contribute to the most catastrophic of failures. For example, a recent National Public Radio broadcast of “Morning Edition” examined what must be done to repair the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA. According to guest commentator Paul Light, a New York University professor and the author of the Four Pillars of High-Performance, the agency has long ranked dead last on the Best Places to Work in Government survey. In fact, a 2002 survey revealed sharp declines in morale with less than one-third of respondents holding their new leadership in high regard.

Light acknowledges that FEMA employees’ complaints can be found elsewhere in government where a lack of resources and the politicization of day-to-day operations are common, but he said that the FEMA opinions were the worst he had ever seen.

He points out the vast majority of the agency’s leadership consisted of political appointees with little or no disaster relief experience. Minus the know-how and ability to provide some kind of direction at the top, it is little wonder the agency was so hesitant in its response to Hurricane Katrina.

On a positive note, the fact that the government conducts satisfaction surveys gives the agency hope. They already have some idea of what the problem is and according to the government’s own surveys, two-thirds of the agency’s employees understand their mission and feel they have enough training and resources to succeed. That’s a good start. Perhaps the biggest workplace lesson to come from Katrina is that employees can achieve incredible things under even the most difficult of circumstances if they believe in the organization, its leaderships and each other.