Lessons Learned

  1. Pacing. Hurricanes come during the warm months of the year and they hit areas that are hot and humid. It takes about a week to adjust to the humidity, which is simply indescribable if youíve never worked in it, and about two weeks to work yourself into some kind of physical shape. If you are coming down for a few days or a week or two, take your time. Take frequent breaks and drink water relentlessly.
  2. Be careful of emotional investment. You cannot and will not save a community, a town, a county, a state or a region in a day. Or a week. Or a month. The people you are helping were living a way of life before you arrived and will live largely that same life after you leave, no matter how foreign that way of life may seem to you. Do what you can for who you can and then move on.
  3. Pick a mission. Trying to be all things to all people generally leads to you helping very few people very little. Pick a mission and stick to it: tarp installation, roof repair, electrical, plumbing, trees, soggy drywall and insulation removal, mold remediation, trailer delivery and installation, etc. Pick a single mission and stick to it. In the end youíll be much more efficient and will help a lot more people.
  4. People are people. Regardless of the community, people are people. A relatively small percentage will make things happen. A relatively large percentage will follow. A small percentage will resist everything through a variety of methods ranging from passive aggressive behavior to outright obstinace. Another small percentage will use any disaster to advance their particular agenda, be it career, commercial, social or cultural. Race is a good example in the Katrina example. An even smaller percentage will prey upon the community and the situation as a pure parasite through looting, crime and price gouging.
  5. Help everybody. Many people will seek to control your efforts to advance their own agendas. Pastors will seek to have you work only from their list of ďapprovedĒ needy. Cities and governments will seek to segment you to particular areas. Dispatchers will seek to send you hither and yon with most of your time spent on the road or in traffic jams. In a true disaster area you can simply work door to door. Pick a neighborhood and help everyone, rich or poor, working or unemployed, white or black. It makes life a lot simpler and youíll end up helping a lot more people.
  6. Be entirely self sufficient. In a disaster you cannot be a load upon the local infrastructure. Bring your own shelter, your own food, your own fuel, your own supplies and your own tools. Keep things locked up and secure.
  7. Disasters are equal opportunity. Despite the efforts of lots of people to spin it otherwise to advance their agendas, including some people in Turkey Creek I spent a lot of time with, Katrina wiped out everyone and everyone did without any assistance for at least two weeks. We talked with and worked with people from all levels of the socio-economic spectrum. No one, from the richest rich to the poorest poor had drinking water, food or fuel for weeks. There wasnít any racism in the stormís impact and there wasnít any racism in the incompetence of the relief agencies, everyone was abandoned for weeks, across the board. Be aware that people will try to use you and the disaster to advance their personal, career, social and political agendas. Stick to your single mission and help everyone.
  8. Bring professional equipment. This is serious work and requires serious equipment. Consumer level equipment is a waste of time and money. Come prepared with proper equipment, training, safety equipment and clothing. You will only have a certain number of hours of daylight to help people. Donít waste them on equipment that is not up to the task.
  9. Be patient and flexible. If a storm victim wants or needs to tell you their story, then sit and listen. The people you are helping have been severely traumatized. Some will have seen neighbors or loved ones killed. Treat them gently and with respect. The local organizers, pastors, dispatchers and officials will likewise be traumatized, overworked and underfed. Most will have been running on adrenaline for days or weeks on end. Give them lots of slack and stick to your mission. Do your job, donít make waves and donít try to change or improve their system.
  10. Be safe. Stop and think before each step of your job. Donít get in a rush and donít take risks. You canít help anyone if you are injured. When you get tired you will start to make stupid mistakes. It is critical that you take frequent breaks and keep yourself thinking clearly. This type of work can involve very dangerous tools and situations. You must face each step of each job with a clear head. Take a moment at the start of each day and the start of each job, especially the last one of each day to think about doing things safely. Again, you canít help anyone if you are injured.