Leadership In Times of Crisis

Thoughts from the VisionFirst team related to the recent hurricanes:

Recovery to Rebuild

by Gray Swoope

The VisionFirst team has all of those impacted by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in our thoughts and prayers. These storms will impact people’s lives, communities, states and island nations and territories forever.  My heart breaks for all.

We have watched Governors Greg Abbott (TX) and Rick Scott (FL) show great leadership skills in handling these back-to-back massive catastrophes. They both will lead the charge for federal and state aid to help those in need.  But more will be needed as the rebuilding process begins.  It will require help from massive numbers of volunteers, faith-based organizations, not-for-profits and private business investment. Local community leadership is where this can be effectively coordinated to maximize resources for the greater good.

The local efforts to rebuild is often done behind the spotlight without any fanfare.  Hardworking community, business and economic development leaders making a difference. No one chooses to be faced with this challenging situation; however, life sometimes puts us there. In 2005, I was put in that position while serving as COO of the Mississippi Development Authority with Governor Haley Barbour when Hurricane Katrina slammed Mississippi.

Days after the storm, nothing can describe the pain, heartbreak, anxiety, stress and helpless feeling of the overwhelming task ahead.  That feeling will be same today for every citizen, community leader, chamber director and economic developer in the impacted areas.  As a community or business leader you can make a difference during this time.  I don’t pretend to be an expert, but here are a few lessons learned that might be helpful to you.

1. Discipline

I drew upon my faith daily to remain strong and be able to deliver when called upon.  It is okay to grieve, but there was a need to stay focused and not be consumed by the enormity of the disaster.  There will be teary moments.  Don’t diminish it.  While you will want to jump from one task to another, take the time and be in the moment.  Listen to the needs of those around you and gain that situational awareness that will help shape recovery strategy.  It will be tempting to want to run to the crisis of the hour but it is important to stay disciplined and focus on your role in the community and where to deliver the most help.

2. Delegate

There will be a constant barrage of requests and needs to pull you in different directions every day.  As a leader, you have to delegate and understand the team and its best roles.  You cannot do everything by yourself.  Do not be afraid to ask help from others

3. Employment

Chambers of commerce and economic development organizations play a critical role in recovery.  Businesses will have critical needs in order to initiate commerce again.  Getting people back to work and generating payroll is a major focus after the storm. Both Florida and Texas have networks set up to help businesses during this time.  In addition, it is important that advocates of economic development and commerce are represented in both Federal and local emergency management recovery efforts. The chance to provide input in the decision making process is helpful to the job recovery efforts.

4. Patience

There is a great expectation that everything will be back to normal within weeks.  It won’t.  Help those that can address the immediate needs for survival and well-being but know the real work is longer term.  Unfortunately, there will be cases where a clean slate will be the starting point for economic and community development.  I always remember Governor Barbour saying, that we will have failed if we just build back like we were.  Federal assistance for rebuilding will be a maze of complex regulations and oversight.  There will be OIG oversight like never before for the billions of federal dollars used.  I recall at one point in our Katrina recovery the Mississippi Development Authority oversight office had more federal inspectors there than people working on the $5 billion plus program. It will be a source of frustration, but a necessity of the process.

5. Take care of you

Nothing is more critical than for you to take care of yourself. Disaster fatigue will take its nasty toll on your health.  I know firsthand how the stress from the day-to-day recovery activities led to my own health issues including stress induced high blood pressure and insomnia.  Don’t hesitate talking to your physician and others about what you are dealing with.  Reach out to your friends in the profession just to talk and think through ways to get through the obstacles.  In the end, your community needs you to be healthy and be a valued contributor to recovery.

During Katrina Governor Barbour always shared his mother’s wisdom, ” Crisis doesn’t produce character, it reveals character.”  You will make a difference in your community.

After the Storm

by Melissa Medley, CME

Like Gray in his message above, I remember what is was like in the months after Katrina to try to pick up the pieces when so many things around us were just that – pieces. It was challenging to refocus on the task at hand; getting people back into homes, employers’ doors opened and people back into their jobs, as well as continuing to recruit and grow new business. Those important functions did not disappear simply because the basic infrastructure in certain areas had.

Many of our colleagues in Florida and the southeast, like those in Texas, will look around and think, “Where do I even start?”  After you see to your own safety and that of your family, friends, neighbors and those in need, one way that you can start is to be the communicator. While the media will focus on the worst aspects of the disaster, it is important for you as economic development and business leaders to use your networks and circles of influence to communicate, connect, comfort, credit and restore confidence.

1. Communicate

Your role as a communicator in the aftermath of a disaster cannot be overstated. While it is up to government and emergency aid organizations to take the lead in communicating to the public – much of the communication to existing business and industry and to external business audiences falls under the economic development purview. Now is the time to talk to your existing industry, understand their needs. Who can reopen and who cannot? What is needed to reopen? How quickly can they get their people back to work? Be the point of connection so that businesses might help one another. You might collaborate with your Chamber on this to ensure all businesses are included in the effort.

You must be the voice of reason to the outside business and consultant world. While everyone else is focused on disaster-related situations, you must give a clear picture of your community’s resilience; your ability to spring into action and work together; how State and Federal support is appropriated for economic recovery; and how your leadership supports business and industry. Promote how your utilities, existing industry and business community are working together to be “open for business” as quickly as possible. Celebrate with the same fervor Mom & Pop businesses opening their doors as you do major employers getting underway.

Remember, the very companies who you will want to recruit and expand later in your communities are going to ask the “hurricane” question. Your communications now lay the groundwork of how you will answer that question.

2. Connect

Most of you are already in positions that connect people: business and industry to the government entities, non-profits and faith-based organizations to work with other organizations on worthy causes, etc. Now is the time look at all that needs to be done, determine where the unmet needs are and start connecting some folks to get things done.

One of your most critical connections will be with your utility and essential service providers as they work to reestablish power, and provide clean water, gas and even garbage collection/debris removal. How can you facilitate the discussion of needs and appropriately funnel possible volunteers into activities that support these efforts? How can you get the word out to businesses that these activities are underway and progressing?

3. Comfort

In the upcoming months, people will become weary. You will become weary. Be kind to yourself and compassionate with others. Your unofficial role is to continually remind people that things will get better. As your community rebuilds itself, find ways to message “hope” which is the greatest tonic for weariness and despair. Communicate a vision of where you are all going together and give solid examples of progress, no matter how small.

4. Credit

In a time of need, people will amaze you. While there are always a few “stinkers” in the crowd who take advantage of the situation, by far you will see more examples of those seeking to help and going beyond what you would imagine to solve problems and provide assistance. Thank them!

You be the voice that highlights these stories of courage and compassion; of service beyond the call of duty. Use your platform each day to call out those who are making a difference by;Helping (EMS, fire and rescue teams, nurses, doctors)Serving (police, military, national guard)Directing (emergency management personnel, state and local agencies), andLeading (at the federal, state and local level, business leaders and others).Highlight those who find ways to move mountains (citizens, volunteers, youth groups, faith-based and civic organizations). Giving voice to these stories not only shows your gratitude – but it also reveals to others the fabric of kindness and strength in your community.

5. Restore Confidence

While it may be difficult to see today, tomorrow will come. And beyond the tangle of debris, damaged homes and businesses, shattered glass and tons of sand and mud, a new day will dawn bringing the hope and confidence that only those who survive tough times can understand. Be the one that continually reminds others of this.

Work with media as appropriate and use all the tools available through marketing, communications and social strategies to continually message both your internal and external audiences. Your friends at VisionFirst are here to support you in any way that we can.

Hurricane Irma Disaster Assistance Programs – Links to Receive or Provide Assistance

Please find below a few links as a starting point to obtain assistance in an aftermath of Hurricane Irma, or to provide assistance to others who might need help.

How can I get help?
Florida residents impacted by Hurricane Irma may register for FEMA assistance:

Governor Scott has activated The Florida Disaster Fund, the State of Florida’s official private fund established to assist Florida’s communities as they respond to and recover during times of emergency or disaster. The Florida Disaster Fund distributes funds to service organizations that will serve individuals within their communities with disaster response and recovery. Individuals seeking financial assistance should register with FEMA at 800-621-FEMA or www.disasterassistance.gov

The National Employment Law Project website posts a good article outlining facts regarding disaster-related unemployment: “Disaster Unemployment Assistance: How Workers can Access the Program After Hurricane Irma”

DisasterAssistance.gov provides a complete list of “quick links” to obtain needed government provided services:

Kathy Kristof of MoneyWatch gives a good summary of essential programs available for Disaster Relief in the CBS article: “Hurricane disaster aid: What you need to know”

And finally, Feeding Florida, Florida’s Network of Food Banks may be reached via these links:

How May I Help Others?

FEMA recommends to help people affected by the storm, visit @nvoad’s page for a listed of trusted organizations:

Volunteers are needed in Florida in response to the hurricane. If you or others are interested in volunteering at a shelter or want more information on how to get involved in Florida, please visit Volunteer Florida.

Fast Company outlines “Hurricane Irma relief: 14 ways to help storm victims, from Volunteer Florida to Airbnb”

Miami Diaper Bank provides for parents with babies who have this basic need. They are also in need of donations: