Disaster Relief Leadership: My Week with Incident Command
What an incredible week in Louisiana! Flash floods, roof top rescues, shelters, gutted homes, & now months of recovery efforts ahead of us. I ended last week thinking that I was going into a couple of weeks of heavy promotion for our Multiply Louisiana Conference & I’d keep pushing toward 40 church plants for this year in Louisiana, along with helping my kids get settled into new routines in school & prepping for a big fall with my church. But with the 1,000 year flood that hit over the weekend, I’ve had the opportunity this last week to help Southern Baptist setup Incident Command Operations for one of the worst disasters in Louisiana history. It’s given me the opportunity to see a different side of SBC Disaster Relief operations. I’ve been on chainsaw crews, mud out crews, Assessment teams, & chaplain teams, & I knew about Incident Command, with little knowledge of what went on. Still don’t know much, but here’s a few observation & takeaways from shadowing Incident Command this week:
1. Just like everywhere else, it’s led by volunteers
Incident commanders are trained & equipped a little differently. A communications trailer, laptops, 3-5 phone lines. All managed by volunteers. DR staff from NAMB & the state convention assist them, but they are IN COMMAND of the situation. And remember, these are men & women that are members of churches just like yours & they have given up 1-2 weeks of their time to help us recover.
2. They build a support system for volunteers responding to disaster
The genius of SBC Disaster response is that when a certified mud out or chainsaw team responds, they can expect a place to stay, a place to shower, a place to get laundry done, & a place to get meals. But this system has to be built through local churches & other volunteers coming in first from the local area, then from surrounding states. That’s part of the job of Incident Commanders. They can’t tell people what to do. They must ask & wait on people to respond with a yes.
3. The work load is overwhelming
Brand new phone lines are setup & made available & immediately these phones start ringing. For this disaster we have a Help Line for the public, Help Line for volunteer teams, & a Help Line for Local Churches. While those lines are constantly ringing, maps are being drawn up, collaboration is happening, scribble notes are everywhere. It’s a maddening adrenaline rush! Lol!
4. They are most of the time on the defensive
It’s never enough & never fast enough the first week of a disaster. And the fluidity of the situation is such that information given out on one phone call is changed by the next phone call. And “I need to call that guy back & tell him that” gets interrupted by the next phone call, that HAS to be responded too. I hardly broke a sweat, but was 10x more exhausted every night than my chainsaw crew days. Lol! The Incident Commanders are trained to expect stress. And they are trained to be the bad guy & the bozo sometimes, which I witnessed & felt this week.
5. The first week is frustrating, but ESSENTIAL
After a week of frustration, I can say that our incident commanders have built a web that will support a long term volunteer response across Louisiana. We are responding to a disaster that includes at least 29 parishes, including Louisiana’s most populated (East Baton Rouge) & fastest growing (Livingston & Ascension). The Incident Commanders have a lot of support to provide. I feel very frustrated tonight, because I’ve already heard local pastors criticizing & saying things like, “the SBC Disaster Relief has been slow &….” I may have said the same thing when I was 6 days in trying to recover from Katrina, Rita, Gustav, & Isaac. But I’ll never say it again! Because I’ve seen the Incident Commanders work & I’ve seen the result. It just takes time to build the system that will support sustained response.
As of Friday, we had 14 State Conventions on the ground or en route, & others are mobilizing & recruiting. Last Spring, 30 out of 42 State Conventions responded! REMEMBER, these are volunteers, who are preparing to put their lives on hold for 1-2 weeks to come to an uncertain environment! Could you do that in 1 week?! Maybe you could, but lets not criticize them for being slow, when they’re preparing to come here on their own time & their own dime to serve! And let’s remember that we’re not the only disaster. California & Colorado Baptist are feeding thousands of people affected by forest fires in the west. West Virginia & Washington are still recovering from flooding. And there are others. When our people are back at work, these teams will still be coming in & working our fields. Let’s be grateful. This system works! These are incredible people working on our behalf! I’m looking forward to seeing the fruits of this week of planning & preparing by our Incident Commanders.
ANOTHER BIG TAKEAWAY: “Under promise, over deliver” is a great leadership axiom. In leadership, its easy to over promise. In Disaster Leadership it’s EXTREMELY easy to overpromise, because of the fluidity of information, but also, because the things that seem easy to get are now hard to get because of the disaster. I fell into that trap this week. Big lessons learned. This is one of those weeks that I’ll be looking back on for leadership lessons for a long time to come.