One of the best parts of my job at FEMA is getting to talk with people all over the country about how they can – and do – prepare themselves, their families, and their communities for disaster. There are so many grass-roots, community-driven preparedness and resilience efforts underway in our country – it’s a topic I never get tired of listening to or sharing ideas about. What I have been lucky that I have not had to do very often, though, is follow my own advice about taking specific steps to stay safe during the moments when disaster strikes.
Wednesday in Kansas City, Missouri changed that.
I had just spent two days in Joplin, Missouri supporting response and recovery in the wake of one of the nation’s deadliest tornadoes. I’d seen first-hand the horrendous devastation and talked with countless everyday heroes. I found myself wanting to stay longer, but I also looked forward to fulfilling a previous commitment I’d made to speak in Kansas City at a national conference of the Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) – some of the most important members of the nation’s emergency management team.
I stopped at our FEMA Region VII office to talk with staff and to catch up on some work before joining the conference. Turns out, Mother Nature had different ideas.
I’d only been there a couple of hours when the weather suddenly became very unstable. The next thing I knew, FEMA staff alerted me that there were possible tornadoes nearby and I needed to move with them to a safe area within the building. Outdoor warning sirens began to sound. I thought to myself,
Tornadoes?? What???? I’m from Boston. I know hurricanes. I know blizzards. But we don’t have tornadoes there too often. This is going to be interesting.
Despite the potential perils, I felt surprisingly calm. At FEMA, we’re in the business of disasters. Many of our staff are disaster survivors themselves. We preach preparedness. But are we really ready?
I quickly learned that in this case, we were. As an agency, we’re always telling others to prepare, plan, and stay informed. That includes understanding weather terminology, monitoring media in times of potentially bad weather, using a NOAA weather radio, having a safe place to take shelter and practicing an emergency plan.
When the real pressure was on us, it was heartening to see members of the FEMA team practice what we preach. The region’s emergency watch officers detected the dangerous weather. As I moved with more than 100 of our employees to the safe area on a lower floor, I heard the sounds of weather radios. The team was orderly and calm. I was proud and humbled.
We sheltered together for more than an hour as several reported funnels in the area dipped down and back up. One possible tornado was reported a mere six blocks away. We used the time to informally catch up as a group on our agency’s activities and goals, and to check on our families. One staffer even took advantage of the ‘captive audience’ and delivered a Continuity of Operations refresher course as we waited for the ‘all clear.’ Hmm … very creative.
We were fortunate enough to get through the situation without harm. Sadly, some Missouri communities were not. If FEMA is needed, we’ll be there to help.
As for me, I will forever remember this as a day that our passion for preparedness counted – again.