Television coverage of Hurricane Ike has dominated the airwaves in the last several days, just as it had with Hurricane Gustav a few weeks ago and Katrina three years before that. I watched the coverage through the same lens that many Americans do: With a prayer for the people enduring the crisis and an occasional inward glance… speculating on what I might do if the winds were coming to my neighborhood and the authorities recommended evacuation.
Horrible storms. Exotic names.
It’s so easy to be cavalier when your only experience with a Category 3 tropical storm is watching those ridiculous clips of obscure CNN news reporters being blown across an abandoned interstate in the face of the howling gale.
The truth is I have been evacuated once– and packed once– for the Southern California counterpart to hurricane season. In 2004, the October wild fires burned through our canyons and 50 feet from our driveway. We spent exactly one day at our in-laws. (Then I decided I would rather take my chances breathing acrid and lung-clogging ash that hung in the air like wet cotton– than spend another minute watching local fire coverage with my in-laws! So we skirted the police barricades and went home.)
Both the 2004 and 2007 wildfires caused my school to be closed for a week. The school itself was never in danger, but the community was deeply impacted. Teachers and family members lost their homes all across the county.
And it makes you think: As a principal… am I prepared to lead my school… with 1000 children, 100 staff members, and countless daily volunteers and visitors– through a full-scale catastrophic emergency?
Like all schools we have the boilerplate “Disaster Preparedness Plan”. We have done the obligatory disaster drills complete with Search and Rescue simulations and teachers chirping because they “got stuck on the Sanitation Team and Ms. Agnew– who has never even been a life guard– gets to be on the First Aid Team.”
“I think this is proof that you just don’t see my leadership potential, Dr. Riley.”
Sears used to sell green trash cans filed to the brim with earthquake tools: batteries and flashlights, shovels and axes, name tags, caution tape and first aid kits. Just as those CNN reporters leave that lasting visual memory of the televised storm (red jackets flapping and ballcaps pulled tight to their ears “I …can’t hear….you… Anderson…. the…. wind is now…..lifting me…. off the ground….” ) — so too do I have the memory of Ms. Ingersoll– an otherwise classy veteran 5th grade teacher– patrolling up and down the hallways with a hatchet and an ill-fitting yellow hard hat– searching for survivors.
She never found any.
My school sits on the side of Interstate 5. We have ghoulishly inventoried all of the potential crises that could happen at any moment as we sit surrounded by freeways and major thoroughfares: firestorms, helicopter crashes, poisonous gas wafting across the playground from truck or train accidents, terrorist attacks on the nearby naval base, snipers, Africanized honey bees (hey don’t laugh… swarms of bees fly across our playground every Spring!) And of course… the feared shifting of the Rose Canyon fault. We are even prepared for Tsunamis.
We have bells and signals and codes and plans for a whole host of potential disasters.
But am I ready to lead through a crisis? Are you?
In nearly 20 years as a school administrator I have only been tested once. Back in 1996, A 5th grade student at my school in Solana Beach decided to remove the brakes from his bicycle. Then one Friday afternoon he decided to ignore the direction he had just received from a parking lot supervisor who told him to walk his bike off campus. Instead, he coasted down the steep hill next to our parking lot that flowed out onto Loma Santa Fe at 3:30 in the afternoon. And on the way down the hill, he took a jab at a classmate who was innocently walking along the sidewalk. And in the effort to needle his classmate, he lost control of his bike and shot out into the on-coming traffic like a nightmare rocket spinning wildly off course. Loma Santa Fe is 400 lanes of cars moving at the speed of Southern California commuters who just want to be home. Our guy didn’t have a chance. He slammed into the side of a bus and suffered catastrophic head injury.
I remember kneeling at his side with a nurse who happened to pull over to assist him. He wasn’t breathing well. As Life Flight flew overhead looking for a place to land, we climbed inside his bike that had exploded on impact and whispered to him while the nurse began CPR. “It’s ok, buddy. We’re going to help you. We’re here to help you.”
Long after the paramedics had loaded him into Life Flight and taken him away, children and police and curious on-lookers were still examining the accident scene. The deep red pool of blood had already started to harden and dry in the street. And on the knees of my pants. In my office I debriefed with office staff. Everyone had remained calm. Everyone swung into action to manage the students, keep traffic flowing, contact paramedics and the superintendent’s office. Many staff members did what they thought needed to be done to protect all our students. In the end, we attributed our reaction to the recent Disaster Plan simulation– to Ms. Ingersol and her yellow construction hat and how earnestly she looked for make-believe victims of a make-believe earthquake. Perhaps that simulation had just saved a child’s life.
So I learned from a 5th grader’s late afternoon collision with a city bus that sometimes disaster plans morph from simulations into real events. And that if adults are prepared… their instincts will do the rest.
And I learned that you can NEVER be prepared to hold a child who is dying in your arms. (10 years later, and I am still here writing about it, thinking about it– agonizing over it: “Was there something I could have done to prevent that accident?”)
And I learned that leading through a crisis is one of those “other duties as assigned.” (Have you ever seen it listed in a job description?)
And I learned that the simulated disaster and full scale practice drill– if nothing else– is good for parent confidence, student amusement, and staff esprit de corps.
And I learned that they damn well better be prepared where my own kids go to school.
And I learned from watching the Katrina response that we will not necessarily be able to count on outside help in the wake of a large scale emergency. We will have to survive on our wits and our commitment and our preparation.
And I learned that when you lead a school through a crisis you have to keep leading long after that crisis recedes, long after the CNN storm reporters find their feet again, long after the ash is swept up from lunch tables and rooftop air conditioners– long after the blood stains in the street are washed away.
And I learned that you have to lead through the healing too.
(Simultaneously posted at http://www.leadertalk.org/)