Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Standing neck deep in water - lessons from a hurricane

I've been following the situation in U.S. states impacted by Hurricane Sandy last month. I feel a personal connection because I work with several clients in the area, including state agencies and research universities.

But I also feel a connection because Hurricane Sandy brought back personal memories of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which hit Gulf Coast states in 2005. My memories are not those of a Katrina survivor, but they're powerful nonetheless.

Let me explain. I'm a program director for a contract research organization. I work in the environmental sciences, primarily in air quality. After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit, I spent a good bit of the next year working seven days a week on a challenging emergency response project. My small team provided logistical and laboratory support for air monitoring during some of the first clean-up activities.

All of my assistance was provided long distance. My small team never set foot on the ground in the damaged area. And yet we lived it, in an odd sort of way, with the people working it realtime on the ground. We were a hodgepodge of contractors from different companies in different states. One contractor based in Texas swapped out teams weekly from their Texas base to the field sites in New Orleans and Gulfport. The New Orleans team worked out of a warehouse with contractors from other companies. I knew when the teams changed. I said "Welcome back!" and "Were you able to get any rest while you were home last week?" Field data sheets that arrived in coolers with samples and contained information about ambient temperature and pressure conditions came with personal notes from people I knew as telephone friends.

My experiences in the Katrina response project taught me several important lessons. And as Hurricane Sandy washed the Katrina memories back into my mind, I realized that the lessons I learned then still apply today. Here are six lasting lessons that can apply to all kinds of stormy life events.

Six Life-Lessons Learned from a Hurricane

  1. When you're standing neck deep in water sometimes the best you can manage is to keep your head above the waterline until help arrives. If you're carrying a load, you may have to just stand there juggling til the waters recede a bit. Acute crisis is never the time to aim for perfection. It's the time to do the best you can to get an acceptable outcome. You can put this in the "It ain't pretty, but it gets the job done" school of thought. People living in the situation had to do the best that they could do. Perfection was not an option. There's no shame in that. In the case of my very limited corner of the Hurricane Katrina response, the federal government seemed to cobble together a response team from existing contracts. We were strange bedfellows, but we got the job done.
  2. When you're juggling the pieces of your life, don't give up hope. Remember why you're doing what you're doing and just keep doing it. An image that comes to mind is Dory in Finding Nemo. Just keep swimming ... just keep swimming... . (What??? You say you've never seen Finding Nemo???? Well, run out and get it. NO! WAIT!! Finish reading this and THEN run out and get it!) It's not exciting to say you just kept plugging away until things got a little better, but it's the way life works sometimes. Persistence brings reward. You can also think of it as keeping your eyes on the doughnut and not on the hole. In late 2006, I received an award from my company for "extraordinary efforts" contributing to the team that "provided technical support to assess environmental impacts in the devastated region and advance our mission to improve the human condition." I think what I really did to earn the award was to just keep juggling things on our side without losing sight of the reason we needed to do it.
  3. Don't stop juggling to meticulously write down your lessons learned. But don't keep juggling unnecessarily after the water recedes, either. You have to be willing to work long enough and hard enough to reach a place of stability. And then you have to be able to relax enough to reflect on lessons learned. It's too easy to get caught in a panic cycle. We debriefed and improved our process after working seven days a week for a few months to perform preliminary monitoring and analysis. We did that only after the initial panic crunch had subsided.
  4. Resist the temptation to compare "your" storm to others. Though some folks in New York have been comparing Sandy to Katrina, the truth is that Katrina was a more devastating storm by many measures. Each of us feels our own loss most acutely, no matter how serious it looks to people standing on the outside looking in. If only one individual had been killed in Hurricane Sandy, the loss for that one person's family and close friends would have likely been just as devastating to them as they imagined the whole of the Katrina losses to be.
  5. Valuable assistance can come long-distance. In my small Katrina response project, I was sometimes a point of contact for people on the ground in Louisiana and Mississippi. Communications were so challenging in the post-storm confusion that I got calls from people in Louisiana just to ask if I'd been in touch with other people in Louisiana. And calls from the state asking if I had information from the feds. Don't be afraid to get help from outside your immediate circle. Someone on the outside might have a clearer perspective than you do.
  6. Not everyone shares the same priorities, but that doesn't mean everyone else is wrong. Sometime in the first six months or so after Katrina hit, I talked to a friend of a friend who was active with Habitat for Humanity in the New Orleans area. When she learned what I did for a living, she scoffed. "No one down there cares about air pollution!" she sniffed. I was offended. With the benefit of a few years' hindsight, I'm no longer offended. She was just reporting from her perspective building homes for people who had lost everything. She made a good point, but she didn't see everything that was happening. Although it might not have occurred to her when she was understandably most concerned with the visible needs around her, air quality was a serious concern after Hurricane Katrina. Loading, hauling, grinding, and incinerating debris of all compositional types can result in emissions of particulate matter, trace metals, dioxins and other organic compounds, asbestos... a veritable alphabet soup of potentially hazardous air pollutants. My project was important, but it may not have been most important to my acquaintance. She wasn't wrong (even if she was annoying).

1 comment:

  1. 1. That article comparing Katrina and Sandy was very interesting. I love data!

    2. You are very generous to your friend of a friend. :-)