Disaster Emotion: On Heartbreak & Resilience


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Thursday, September 7, 2017

This piece is long, and I’m okay with that.  Sadness and hard truths aren’t always short stories.

We are at a unique time in America, when hundreds of thousands are being affected by disaster of some type.  There are incredible wildfires across the western US, Texas and Louisiana are in response and recovery from Hurricane Harvey and its incredible related flooding, and Hurricane Irma is already affecting the US Insular Areas of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands… expected to hit Florida early Saturday.

What do you do?  My Facebook feed shows incredible sadness.  The TV news has already moved on from Texas and Louisiana to the Caribbean, and the disaster of the investigations surrounding the US president.

It’s an awfully lot of trauma and emergency and panic.  Most of us are not directly affected by these natural disasters, but more and more we know people who are.  They’re getting bigger.

I have tried to keep my distance.  I have also tried not to write about how I am keeping my distance.  It seems unprofessional, and I have been a disaster management professional of one sort or another for my whole career.

One thing you don’t do when you work in this field is get emotional and stay emotional.  It comes out instead in your work, and your obsession with it – if you get to that point. 

Death at Scale, & Order from Chaos

I was in a philosophy club in the first few years I lived in the Washington, DC area, and one day we were talking about death.  The other members in the group were taken aback by my seemingly casual discussion about it… to the point where we dedicated our next meeting’s full discussion to the subject.  It is something I have thought much about over the years – especially when there is a new disaster somewhere.  When lives are lost and homes destroyed.

The thing is, when you are in this business, you can’t carry it all.  You carry some of it, because it motivates you to work on making it better.  But you can’t carry it all. 

You can’t carry the sadness of the stories of a beautiful gorge reduced to ash, of people and animals running for their lives from a wall of fire, and of people across states trying to breathe.

You can’t carry miles and miles of streets where the contents of all of the houses have been emptied onto the curb – everything destroyed.  You can’t carry the images of people drowning, and the heartbreak of those who tried but couldn’t get them in time.

It’s too damn sad.

Let me tell you a bit of what I carried; what motivated me in this business.  I carried the images of wildland firefighters, dying trapped in the woods.  Breathing in searing hot air, hugging the ground.  Or burning alive inside a fire engine.  Or crushed under a fallen tree.

I carried the images of the World Trade Center towers collapsing on 9/11.  People jumping from windows, because it was a better option than staying where they were.  People on the ground, hearing the bodies land.  I carried stories from a fire friend of how they found his station brothers… nearly six months later.  I carried the incredible sadness of friends who responded, and who could never breathe again.  I carried the stories of Incident Management Teams (IMTs) who were called to the Pentagon, and helped bring order to chaos.

Friends who navigated mountains of rubble in New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina.  Who brought order to chaos at the New Orleans airport and airspace, when aviation coordination infrastructure was missing and near-misses were common in the search and rescue of the catastrophe.

Friends on teams in Florida hurricanes - before Katrina was ever on our minds.  An IMT bringing order to chaos in a stadium where nursing homes and care facilities were evacuated into, and medical needs needed to be met in a place built for sports.

Forgetting Catastrophe

Yes, I have heartbreak.  I have had so much, and I have tried my damn-dest (yes that’s a word I just declared into existence) to help make the systems better than are behind these responses.  I have poured my life and my health into this stuff. 

I tried for YEARS to get people in government in the Washington, DC area to give a shit about disaster response.  Granted, I did it within some lines, as I felt I needed to keep my high level of clearance.  The effect then was perhaps more like a dog whistle than what the effect I had hoped whistleblowing would bring.

I found heartbreak in that path.  I found that so many years after 9/11 - and then after Hurricane Katrina - that we lost the focus and the sense of the vulnerabilities that catastrophe shows.

That’s a key point.  The center of gravity slips when the trauma is not so sharp in our minds.  We forget the pain and the suffering – because nobody wants to carry all of that awfulness.

I will give you that we are farther along than we were on 9/11, and during Hurricane Katrina.  But we haven’t had a catastrophe since.  Now we have 2-4 of them, depending on if you count the wildfire season as a catastrophe, and the looming Constitutional crisis around the US presidency.  Along with that, we have an administration and a Congress hell bent on cutting the very government functions that are helping us respond right now.  And I don’t just mean FEMA.  I mean all of it.  The science, commerce, oversight, coordination, and capability behind all of this response is incredible.  It’s too complex to explain, and I won’t try. 

I write all of this to process.  To say out loud what one disaster management person can say… who is not neck-deep in all of this catastrophe.

Responder Heartbreak

Years ago when I was working on a fire engine in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I met a guy on a different park crew who had been on an engine in the west… and walked away from it.  As a firefighter who freaking loves fire, I didn’t understand.  How could you leave such a thing?  But he wasn’t cut out for the intensity.  He needed a different kind of a life, and he found it in vegetation management.

Over the years, I have met others.  Dispatchers who have burned out, firefighters with distance, cops who had to get out of it.  There is always a fire in the eyes of those who left.  But I saw something else there that I didn’t understand until I got it too. 

It’s heartbreak.  It’s this incredible sadness, and it comes from touching some of the tougher parts of being human, and on a regular basis.  It’s something different for everyone, but I know what it is for me.  It’s not being able to help everyone, or enough.  Or to move bureaucracy.  Or to move space and time.  Or to make people nicer, or smarter, or less stubborn.  Or to take be able to take helpfulness where it exists, and amplify it more. 

I don’t like to swear on my blog, but here’s an exception.  I fucking love fire, firefighters, and fire management.  I love first responders, and cops, and EMS folks, and the entire surprising array of types of law enforcement folks.  I am absolutely awed by dispatchers, who are rarely considered by the public, and impressed as all hell over and over by emergency managers and their staffs.  All of these folks year after year continue to do impossible things with often-limited resources. 

They keep each other and the public ALIVE, more often than not – and that’s the goal.  It’s one of the main reasons we pay taxes.  It’s part of our social contract with government.  And tons of these folks volunteer – more also than is generally acknowledged.

I love my colleagues and friends who keep at this, and who have the wherewithal to keep at it year after year.  One friend of mine has been on more tragic fatality incidents than I could imagine in several lifetimes, yet continues to find himself in more disasters time after time. 

I have met mentors and amazing people through this business.   My life is what it is through this work, and I am forever grateful for what it brings. 

Almost every single one of those folks is out there now – on a fire, in a dispatch center, in a briefing, pulling data, creating maps, moving folks, making mutual aid happen, doing damage assessments, calling for evacuations, making emergency notifications happen, and cajoling as many folks as possible to get the hell out.  And not everyone will be able to.  Because not everyone has means.  Because:  jobs.  Because:  critical infrastructure.  Because:  reasons.

Finding A Way Forward

We’ll see more death and destruction this week. 

If it looks like I’m not emotional enough about these catastrophes, there’s a reason.  I’ve been working in the ways I could to get this damn country more ready for catastrophe actively since 9/11.  I couldn't get Washington, DC to care.  Now much of it still doesn’t seem to:  there was a proposal last week in Congress to cut FEMA’s budget by $1 billion – AFTER Hurricane Harvey hit.

So no, I’m not tracking the wildfires.  No, I’m not tracking the specific operational response of the hurricanes. 

I have been upset about these catastrophes for years, because I knew they were coming.  I KNEW.  One thing that is inevitable on a planet where an increasing world population increasingly lives in high-hazard zones is catastrophe.  And we’ll have more.

The question is:  will we care enough after these catastrophes to keep the government itself?  And ALSO to make improvements in response?  Perhaps to build less in high-hazard zones?

I left the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2014 because we had long since forgotten about 9/11 and the changes we were meant to be making as a result. 

This new administration has made race the culprit, and is fixing to take the remaining DHS resources and shift them all to building an absurd and ineffective southern border wall, and to hiring more law enforcement officers to spread around at our relatively open other borders.

That’s not the stuff that is going to make our country more ready for more disaster.  It’s not going to make us more resilient.  It’s not going to make us stronger.  It’s not a risk-based approach, or an intelligence-based approach (like national security intelligence, not just the wisdom kind).

If you want to talk to me about what is important, those are the things.  Government itself, and its capability.  Homeland security – in building a more resilient country.  National security – in tailoring our resilience and security to actual and likely risk.

In the meantime, the amazing people on the ground and in the operations centers will do phenomenal work with the resources they’ve got today and in the coming weeks and months.  Over the winter, they may sleep a bit and catch their breath, and dig in to see what’s next and what can be improved.

What can you do?

Build resilience at home.  Build a resilient community.  We’re going to have more and bigger disasters, and if you think the federal capability is going to be anything like what we’ve seen for TX, LA, and FL this week – my guess is that you’d be wrong. 

We’re going to need capability locally, and we’re going to need it sooner rather than later.

#HoldTheLine
#HoldTheLight
#AnchorAndFlank
#GetResilient


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