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Essential Leadership – Natural Responses to Un-Natural Disasters

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October 3rd, 2017

- Updated on

March 21, 2018 - 4:04pm
We made the 16-hour trek from northern Georgia to our home south of Tampa on the gulf coast of Florida last month. The drive should have taken no more than 8 hours, but traffic, lack of gas for our vehicles and extensive flooding along the route proved challenging. For those of us returning home after evacuating to avoid the devastation-packed power of Hurricane IRMA, the drive brought a mix of trepidation and camaraderie with fellow travelers on the road.   
When I wrote about the need for leadership in the wake of Hurricane HARVEY, I never imagined that my family would be caught up in the threat of a CAT 4 hurricane barreling down on our city. It’s one thing to reflect on a distant tragedy viewed through the impersonal filter of the television screen. It’s entirely another to wait, and watch, and fear the worst in your own backyard. It is particularly unnerving to recognize how completely dependent on our technology, our transportation, our communication systems, our public utilities we have become- when all we depend upon except each other is inoperable or wiped out. Not until IRMA did I personally understand the profound impact of such a natural disaster could have on a community, on our institutions, and our individual lives.

Never until IRMA have I witnessed such grass-roots leadership rising up to face the threat.

When the storm passed, my family and our friends were among the lucky ones. In the last hours before IRMA was predicted to hit, the prevailing winds turned the storm east by 20 miles, sparing our town the brunt of the eyewall. Jim and I did not lose much in the storm, just a big tree and a freezer full of food. Nothing, really. But we did gain immeasurably from the existential threat of loss and the necessary letting go this disaster required. 
The lessons of IRMA remain strong within me. I still find tears welling up when I think of those whose lives were lost or devastated by HARVEY, IRMA and MARIE. Yet, my heart swells when I counter those thoughts with the knowledge of the good-hearted people who stepped into the gap, exhibiting personal leadership to help their fellow citizens in need.
3 hurricanes approaching the Caribbean Islands and Florida - shot from Space.

Leading In the Aftermath of Disasters

In our recent post, Leadership That Really Matters In The Aftermath Of Hurricane Harvey, we asked what you or your organizations were doing to provide essential leadership in the face of the disaster. What follows are your responses and other outstanding examples of leadership we have witnessed. It is striking how many of you had personal connections to these events. Here are a few of the examples, both practical and heartfelt:
“Like many others, my husband and I donated funds for relief – through his company since they have a matching program…My brother and sister-in-law live in Sugarland, TX, a Houston suburb and have been evacuated. They are living at a retirement home with her dad which is in an area that wasn’t flooded…the big question, how much their house is damaged? During Super Storm Sandy, we took in many friends and neighbors whose power was out since we had a generator.  I wish I could open my home to those in Texas as well.  For now, we will open our wallets and our hearts.” Denise
“One of our no-kill animal shelters in Asheville, NC has sent "search and rescue" teams to states impacted by the hurricanes. Within the first week of Harvey's aftermath, the shelter had transported over 50 homeless dogs to Vermont and New York to ensure that they are adopted rather than euthanized.” Pam
“ I would like to add to the conversation and offer Brene Brown’s most recent post in which she shared her direct experience and support for an organization called, “Let’s Talk Underwear”, an organization that provides the means to a simple form of dignity, that of clean underwear.  When I watched her speak about it I said to myself, “of course.” So, here it is, a link to donate in another way. Stay connected; Be strong.” Renee’

IRMA Challenges Florida Citizens to Rise -  Companies, Citizens, Churches All Respond as One

With HARVEY barely behind us and clean-up efforts still continuing, the islands and Florida suddenly faced a similar wallop. IRMA was on the move and it didn’t look pretty. Predicted to be the strongest and largest hurricane ever spawned in the Atlantic, it was a scary one. As IRMA churned up the Gulf of Mexico and the Florida coast, all the water was sucked up out of Tampa Bay by her vortex. This rare phenomenon left our endangered manatees stranded in the seagrass on muddy ground. Not to be deterred by personal risk, Floridians venture out on the flats where the bay waters used to be, rescuing this creature and a companion from sure death.

“Whenever two or more join together” …Look what they can do!

We witnessed first-hand or heard about story after story of such selfless acts throughout the preparation and aftermath of IRMA. Take as examples:
  • The crew of this Southwest Airlines flight out of Tampa to Indianapolis who cheerfully accommodated and cared for 15 wheelchair bound passengers, including my own mom, as they escaped the storm on one of the last flights out of town. Can you imagine that flight? Yet I heard nothing but concern and kindness from the skycaps, the gate agents, and the flight attendants. Thanks for keeping my momma safe!
  • When gas became scarce on highway 75 northbound, many of us took to back roads to avoid traffic jams and search for precious fuel. Off the highway, gas could be found, if one had the patience to wait in long lines. One station employee stepped up to manage the onslaught of frantic evacuees by carefully rationing gas for each driver, expertly directing those in line, quelling any potential confrontation by his good humor and his steady leadership.
  • When our cell data allotment ran out through the endless use of traffic and gas-finding apps, we found ourselves helplessly lost on dark, two-lane rural roads in central Georgia, where the only visible road signs warned of cows in the road.  With one desperate call, our cell carrier came to the rescue, extending 2 free gigs of data to anyone who asked. Thanks, Verizon!
  • On our harrowing return trip home, we passed convoy after convoy of out of state line workers in bucket trucks driving into the disaster zones to restore our power. At 2:00 AM, on narrow, tree-strewn back roads, we passed a line of 20 trucks from Texas. Their crew members must have been exhausted after working the weeks before restoring power to Hurricane HARVEY victims, but they drove on into the early morning hours. Hurricane Irma knocked out power to as many as 16 million people across the Southeast, according to recent estimates from utility companies. In response, Florida Power and Light reported that 21,000 line workers from 30 states answered the call in the largest assembled army of restoration workers in U. S. history. We love our utility workers! 
  • Equally impressive were the relief efforts carried out by the hands and feet of ordinary citizens and the non-governmental organizations. For those of us who lost little but sleep and our sense of security from the storm, we turned our angst into action. Working these relief efforts assuaged our lingering anxiety and brought home to each of us the exponential power of the individual joined together in one cause. 
  • Using their own cargo van, several volunteers distributed 1000 gallons of fuel paid for by donations, all in 5 -gallon cans donated by a big box store. 
Within hours of the storm’s passing faith-based organizations stepped in to lead – providing more than 80% of the relief efforts in our state, according to one report in the Wall Street Journal.  
In alliance with 24 other local churches, my own Bradenton/Sarasota-based church acted as a relief depository, distribution outlet and staging center, coordinating relief efforts that stretched north to Jacksonville and south to Ft. Myers, Marco Island, and the Keys. From children out of school volunteering to rake up yard debris to a caterer from Cajun country, Samaritan Catering, who drove in to the ravaged town of Wauchula to boil gallons and gallons, and I mean gallons of rice and beans and Jambalaya to serve the hungry, a rag-tag yet powerful army formed. Those with innate leadership skills took charge, the rest of us fell in line.
The results – astonishing… Look what 1,952 local individuals working 12,000 volunteer hours accomplished for each other in just one week:
  • 9,900+ hot meals served
  • 9200 cases of water distributed
  • 1000 gallons of fuel distributed
  • 3000+ family care packages distributed
  • 20 generators donated
  • 20+ Chainsaw crews helping countless families assisted with debris clean-up in the hardest hit areas of the state.
Hurricane Irma victins awaiting supplies 2017

Storm victims in Wauchula, FL awaiting water, care packages, and a hot meal of savory Cajun jambalaya.

What Response Now?

The cable news and internet are still filled with images of destruction this month. MARIE, another horrific storm, decimated Puerto Rico and the islands. Although local rescuers are valiantly trying to make recovery inroads; supplies and equipment are scarce and becoming scarcer all the time. And the storms have eclipsed the coverage of the fires out west, impacting many lives by these tragedies, too.  When disasters roll in like relentless waves, what are we to do?   
Continue to do what you do. Continue to rise up, step out, lead in the best way you know how, with your heart, with your hands, with your spirit. We cannot control what feels like very un-natural natural disasters. But, we can control the outcome through hard work, creative responses, and intentional leadership. It does make a difference. 
To all who helped - corporations, organizations, families, individuals - as evidenced in these accounts and many more, too numerous to mention, your leadership has made an essential difference in our lives. May we remember the lessons learned in the storm, and honor the gifts you gave by finding ways to pay it forward. If you want to get your work colleagues involved in something today, consider this Hurricane Relief effort led by Caring Capital. 
My family and I and my neighbors thank you. From the ravaged but recovering states of Florida and Texas, we ALL thank you!   

Kathy Flora is a Career and Executive Coach and AJO Blogger who is actively pursuing her life’s passion, helping others find and fulfill theirs. Known as a positive change agent, mentor and guide, she has assisted hundreds of leaders and their teams understand their strengths, collaborate effectively, and drive organizational success. She has a special affinity for working with virtual teams, using webinars, virtual meet-ups, and online collaborative communities to optimize communication and productivity. Her experience spans over 25 years in executive management and leadership, career development, facilitation, and consulting in private firms, state government, and in federal agencies.