Leadership lessons I learned from Charley, Frances and Ivan

Marilyn Rawlings
Fleet Manager
Lee County, Florida
Presenter, 2005 APWA Snow Conference

Summer of 2004 was not an opportune time to live in the State of Florida. It seemed that we had barely recovered from a bad case of the "hanging chads" when Charley, Frances and Ivan rolled into town.

Summers in Florida are hot, rainy and full of mosquitoes. This summer, the heat and the bugs paled in comparison to everything else that transpired. Please understand, I am a huge fan of sandy beaches and year-round sunshine. I moved here from Michigan twenty years ago to get away from bitter cold and snow drifts bigger than my car. Somehow, I missed the part of the Chamber of Commerce's brochure that outlined hurricane evacuation procedures.

I had just returned from a two-week vacation. I was tan and relaxed. My first day back in the office, however, was spent at the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) preparing for the arrival of Hurricane Charley. We had completed this drill numerous times in the past. We had watched many storms transition from a tropical depression to a tropical storm to a hurricane. But usually we also watched as they moved away from Southwest Florida and made landfall in some other part of the country.

The damage to these homes shows the sheer destructive force of Hurricane Charley.

We waited for the "jog" that would cause Charley to veer off its projected path and away from our coast, but each update continued to show a projected landfall in our area. About 4:00 p.m. on Friday, August 13, Charley, a Category 4 hurricane, made landfall just north of Fort Myers, Florida.

I doubt that any of us were prepared for the devastation that resulted. Tens of thousands of homes were without water, sewer, and electricity. Businesses were damaged; some destroyed. Roofs were lost. Huge oak trees were lying across roads and homes. Roads were blocked. Traffic signals were out. Debris was everywhere.

Staff manned the Emergency Operations Center around the clock. The Red Cross and Salvation Army mobilized. DOT equipment moved to clear debris. Camouflaged and carbine-clad National Guard directed traffic. Volunteers came from throughout the country to help Southwest Florida on its long road toward recovery.

Through it all, we've learned some valuable lessons about who we are and what we're made of. Here are my seven leadership laws for handling hurricanes or any other natural disaster.

1. Hope for the best but plan for the worst
All our practice runs made us think about what we would do in the event of a hurricane. We had formulated a disaster recovery plan that we felt was pretty good. Fortunately, we have a great EOC staff that had worked over the years to ensure we had developed a viable plan. For that I am grateful. After all, we had learned a lot from Hurricane Andrew that ravaged the east coast of Florida in 1992. But actually experiencing a natural disaster like Charley helped us find the holes in our plan.

Our plan is written, posted, and reviewed annually. We have identified some basic tasks that need to be completed at varying intervals before, during, and after the storm as well as the specific person that is responsible for completing them. Our plan is split into sections such as "60 hours prior to landfall," "48 hours prior to landfall" and "24 hours prior to landfall." Tasks range from little things like ordering port-a-pots (in case our sewers don't work) and restocking vending machines (you have to have something to eat) to major items like topping off fuel tanks and sending computer backup tapes outside our geographical area for safekeeping. Everything we can think of, no matter how big or small, is listed.

We have even added some tasks that we complete at the beginning of every hurricane season. Every spring we order about 200 extra tires and keep them in stock. (It's amazing how many roofing nails are on the roads when a hurricane rips off 20,000 roofs countywide.) If we don't use them during the storm season, we use them up the remainder of the year. We also stock extra tire patch kits and place them in almost every County vehicle.

2. Expect the unexpected
You've heard the saying "The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry"? Well, no matter how great your disaster recovery plan, there will be unplanned issues that arise.

About a year prior to Charley's arrival, we had ordered new mobile telephones that featured radio capability. We had been assured by the vendor that the telephone's radio capabilities would enable us to communicate after a hurricane even if telephone lines were down. After Charley hit, however, our super-duper radios didn't work. The vendor had no backup plan to power the radio towers and we were unable to communicate with employees in the field. Fortunately, we had kept many of our old 800 MHz radios, which enabled us to communicate with employees working under hazardous conditions.

Also, several government agencies had buildings that were severely damaged. No one had made a plan for what they would do if their shop or office building were no longer inhabitable. No one had identified an alternate work site.

Many homes were without telephone service so employers had difficulty contacting employees with information about work. We had developed a list of home numbers, cell phone numbers and relatives' telephone numbers for every employee and vendor we had. In some cases, we allowed employees to take work trucks home equipped with radios so we could reach them after the storm.

After Charley, many of our vendors were without power and could not support our operation. We had to contact vendors from outside our immediate area to provide normal, everyday services. Fortunately, we had a list of alternate vendors to contact if we needed them.

3. Day-to-day "stuff" doesn't go away
A positive attitude is difficult to maintain after your third hurricane in only a month's time. With each storm, people bought supplies, barricaded windows and doors, and wondered what would remain afterwards. Optimism is hard to come by when everything you hold dear is threatened on a weekly basis.

During my family's five days without electricity, I tried to get my kids to think of our experience as "camping" but they didn't buy it for long. Eating peanut butter sandwiches (even by candlelight) gets old quickly. (Did you know "Hot Pockets" can be cooked on a barbecue grill?) Eating out isn't even an option as the local fast food chains and grocery stores were also out of power.

Keeping staff morale high during times like these is just as difficult. People are trying to do their jobs while keeping up a strong front at home. How do you require an employee to come into work when the roof of his house is in another county?

4. It can get worse
After the storm passed, thousands of workers and helpers came into town to help with the recovery. It was great to see hundreds of trucks from the power companies and tree trimming contractors roll into town. However, many fuel vendors in our area didn't have their fuel systems on backup generator. They had tens of thousands of gallons of fuel in tanks, but had no power and no way to get the fuel out of the tanks and into cars and equipment. Gas stations were closed all over town.

Even for those gas stations with backup generators, fuel quickly became scarce. Fuel ports in Miami and Tampa closed because ships could not get into ports to restock their tanks. There was also a concern for underground fuel tanks. The water table was high applying upward pressure on underground tanks. Normally the dirt above the tanks would be heavy enough to offset any pressure from a rising water table.

As the lead agency in acquiring fuel for first response teams, we had to closely monitor our fuel supply. We had plenty of fuel for our operation, but when other government agencies, relief workers and electric companies would start to draw from our tanks, our fuel supply would be depleted quickly.

We learned that it is critical for all agencies in an area to have contingency plans with their suppliers. Better coordination of efforts would have saved us a lot of grief.

Several weeks later, when Frances and Ivan threatened, we wondered if fuel would become a problem again. This time, however, we encountered a new problem. Because the underground water table was high and the ground was saturated, fuel vendors were concerned about underground fuel storage tanks becoming unstable. Suppliers wanted to keep a minimum amount of fuel in their tanks to provide ballast during the storm.

5. Teamwork is everything
Every leader wonders how his/her team will respond when put to the ultimate test of a team under severe pressure. Even the best employees and the best teams will struggle in the midst of no electricity (which means no air conditioning and 95-degree temperatures), limited water/sewer and damaged homes.

Two aerial photo collages of North Captiva Island, Florida, from September 29, 1999 and August 15, 2004. The bottom collage shows the North Captiva Island Pass opening due to Hurricane Charley. The area was opened previously due to Tropical Storm Gabrielle in 2001.

In the days following Charley, my staff was called in to work as part of the first response team. It was hot and humid, and tensions ran high. Normally cordial staff members were tense and irritable. One even threatened to walk out and quit. Several weeks later, another one did the same.

As leaders, we must remember that our staff is comprised of normal human beings with normal emotions. When emotions are stretched to the max, unusual things begin to happen. It is easy to "forget" to be compassionate during times like these, especially with a team that normally accomplishes extraordinary things.

After Charley, Frances and Ivan had passed by and things were returning to "normal," I found that frustrations which had been buried during the storm were starting to come to the surface. In an effort to mediate things, the County brought in an outside facilitator to hold a type of critical incident stress debriefing with small groups of employees. Attendance at the debriefing was mandatory, but their level of participation was optional. During that time, employees were allowed to share their feelings about the storm and how they processed the stress of it all.

I've often heard that "the worst of Mother Nature should bring out the best of human nature." It's a great sentiment, but just be prepared that it may bring out some of the worst of human nature, too.

6. Keep your sense of humor
As with any major life event, editorial artists and commentators used the storm to poke fun at the people of Florida. (We have become rather thick-skinned after the 2000 presidential elections.) But, the people of Florida poked fun at themselves. "Go away, Ivan" and "Sorry, Charley" signs dotted the plywood board of many businesses. Funny e-mails began to fill in-boxes on a regular basis. Boards on one home summed up the feelings of a few Floridians: "1-Charley, 2-Frances, 3-Ivan, 4-sale."

One person even tried to delineate the similarities between hurricanes and Christmas (dragging out boxes that haven't been used since last season, shopping in crowded stores and a tree in your living room, just to name a few).

And the final lesson I learned:

7. Jim Cantore from the Weather Channel doing a live remote broadcast from your backyard is NOT a good thing

Marilyn Rawlings is Fleet Manager for Lee County, Florida and can be reached at (239) 338-3233 or at RawlinML@leegov.com. She will be presenting "Fleet Responsibilities in a Disaster - Are You Prepared?" at the APWA North American Snow Conference in Kansas City, Missouri, April 18, 2005. Attend this session and learn what your fleet can do to become better prepared for the next natural or manmade disaster.

The APWA North American Snow Conference will offer other sessions related to emergency management including: "Improved Technologies in Weather Forecasting"; "Snowplowing Tips and Techniques"; "Outsmarting Black Ice"; "Command Central - The Snow Desk"; and much more.

For additional information on the APWA North American Snow Conference see the previous four pages or go to www.apwa.net/meetings/snow/2005/.