Monthly Archives: May 2011

First Person

It’s one thing to read about tragedies happening in distant places. It’s another thing when we start seeing video and hearing the sounds associated with a disaster – but still, let’s be honest here – it’s not us.  Even as we watched wave after wave crash through Japanese towns and heard the people talk about it as their lives were being washed away it’s still not here.  Most of us don’t speak the language, the towns looks similar to ours, but are just different enough to allow our brains to do what they do best – filter and compartmentalize the data in such a way that removes most of the sense of fear and danger that those that were there felt.

Then there’s the experience of talking to someone who was there. It’s not a distant thing anymore. When a survivor starts to tell their tale…what they felt, smelled, thought….all those things make it real. Emotion is contagious; we humans share in subtle ways that even the best digital media can’t come close to replicating. When they talk, you…understand.  Seeing pictures of Christchurch,  New Zealand’s Central Business District in rubble is one thing – listening to someone talk about how many funerals they went to in one week changes everything. Last week, many of us had a chance, a privilege really, to meet Christchurch survivors and hear their stories. We met with a delegation of business leaders and elected officials sent to learn from us about recovery.

For many, our last disaster is a distant memory – but the emotional ties are still strong. I remember it like yesterday, and those old nagging feelings of tension came back strong when I listened to a Christchurch Councilman talk about packing his wife and child off to the in-laws and “saying goodbye in a way that you usually don’t” before grabbing his orange vest and heading into the fray. He spent the next several days doing whatever needed doing.

How many orange vests would you see in SF do the same thing? Thousands is my guess. And that doesn’t even account for all those who haven’t taken a NERT course and will just drop what they’re doing to help a stranger. In Christchurch, stories of construction crews becoming heavy rescue crews are prevalent – unknown numbers of people were saved by the impromptu rescuer. Statistics show time and again that more people are saved by neighbors than professionals – it’s a matter of time. Waiting for a heavy rescue squad isn’t really an option. So the question we all need to ask ourselves isn’t whether we’re willing – almost everyone is when the time comes – but whether we’re capable of doing the job safely. The last thing you want to do is become a victim. There’s a real physical and emotional toll that comes with helping. The best thing any of us can do is get trained – whether it’s NERT or something similar, take the time and learn how to help safely.

When you’re in class it’s pretty easy to push that reality away and not worry about it – and on game day most will do just  what the Councilman did; make sure the family is safe and get back to work.  It wasn’t a drill for them. He honestly didn’t know if he would see his wife or child ever again. To this day, the CBD in Christchurch is closed due to the risk of collapsing buildings. The danger is real. It’s not a distant land or a case study at that point. And that’s the way it happens – from sitting in a boring meeting to digging through the rubble in an instant.

The stories of the shaking underscore the violence of the event as well – everyone  in the delegation had a story about that. Not being able to stand up, the rapid up and down jolting of the ground, the stuff falling everywhere. Duck and cover? Some couldn’t get to a table and had to cover their heads with their hands while they lay fully exposed on the floor with debris falling all around. In the aftermath, some were trapped in their offices because the stairwells failed. Others had long treks home through debris- laden roads – cars were often damaged or blocked in.

The most common comment we heard last week? They all wished they had taken preparedness more seriously. If there’s one lesson to take away from their experience it’s that – take the time to think things through and take the steps to prepare for adversity, be it a power outage or an earthquake, or even running late to pick up the kids. The simple steps you take now will empower you to handle whatever comes your way. And really, you’re a lot closer than you think to that empowerment – but that’s a topic for another post.