Originally posted on May 8, 2020.
A few days ago, someone sent me an article about people who were born around the turn of the last century. It chronicled the experiences of that generation through the years—World War I (without the benefit of antibiotics); the 1918 Global Pandemic; the Great Depression; World War II; the Korean War, and probably in their retirement years, the Vietnam War. As seems to happen more and more often these days, the article brought to mind my grandfather, Tommy Thompson.Tommy (we never called him anything other than Tommy) was born and raised in Ireland, in the tiny village of Raphoe, in County Donegal. He left Ireland as a young man, explaining years later to an inquisitive granddaughter that, while beautiful, Ireland had, at that time, yet to consider how to adapt to change. He recalled the Great Famine, in which so many Irish starved to death when their main food source, potatoes, failed due to blight. He also recalled the sectarian violence that for so long had ravaged the country, pitting neighbor against neighbor, community against community. So, when he was offered a position in America, a country of vast opportunity, he leapt at the chance, settling in New York, marrying my grandmother, an immigrant from Scotland, and raising my Dad.
Tommy could have remained in Donegal. Many in his family did that very thing. But, he knew that staying meant being hide-bound by what his family had always done, had always been. Instead, he chose a different path, and explored what it meant to be resilient, to be prepared for change.
Last fall, Sherril Gladney, one of the key members of the Office of Emergency Management team here in Boone County and a valued member of Task Force One, approached the Commission, and through the Commission, worked with all of the Elected Officials and Department Directors to clarify their continuity of operations plans. Some might ask…. Say WHAT??? Sherril was either prescient or just doing her job as Planning and Preparedness Specialist. What she was helping the leadership in the County to do was to think through what resiliency looks like when faced with a disaster. Last fall, unless Sherril is TRULY prescient, I don’t think she was considering COVID-19, but she was considering “disasters” or “disruptions” in the generic sense.
As she and I spoke, I was, quite honestly, thinking that we were most likely going to experience a disaster or event –a snow or ice storm, straight-line winds, a tornado, even a hazardous material accident on the Interstate—that was short-term in initial duration, even if the ultimate impact were longer. As we now know, the first such “event” was a bigger, longer-term event—COVID-19.
Over the last couple of months, Sherril has been an integral part of the OEM team, helping to organize responses of governmental agencies and other entities and serving as the constant reminder that, in order for any expenses possibly to be reimbursed by FEMA, detailed records be kept to document exactly what was expended, by whom, for what, and when. At the same time, she is gathering data from all of the community stakeholders about the actions that have been taken so that, at some point, the community can engage in a de-briefing, an after-action review.
Some agencies have already begun that process internally. I sit on the Board of Boone County Family Resources, which provides a myriad of services to individuals living with developmental disabilities in our community. At the last Board meeting (held by Zoom), there was a good discussion about the work that has already been done to identify what has been working and changes that have been made to make the lives of employees and those they serve better. They have also begun to create the list of those things that they should have done better and, in many cases, the solutions that they will have in place for “the next time.”
What Sherril and the leadership at Boone County Family Resources have been engaging in is a study in resiliency, much like Tommy’s approach to life back in the early 1900’s. Resiliency isn’t just a question of character, as we sometimes assume. It is just as much a willingness to plan and prepare. The world of Emergency Management is built on that premise—planning and preparation, with a healthy dose of practice.
Now seems the time for our community, and communities around the country and the world, to begin to critically evaluate our responses to the COVID-19 events and, based on our honest evaluation of the responses of our organizations and the system to which they belong, to determine how we can become more resilient. Because if we believe that this is the last such event that will impact our lives, we are deluding ourselves. The next event may be shorter in duration, but we nonetheless must be better prepared.
Some friends and local and regional colleagues and I are looking at one of the systems that we believe can and MUST be adjusted to allow for resiliency. It is a system that impacts every single one of us—agriculture. We have been increasingly concerned that the system –from food on the hoof to food on the table—is currently built in a way that does not even permit resiliency. When one portion of the system stops, the entire system is at risk.
Look what is happening across the country right now—farmers are putting down market weight hogs and cattle that can’t be delivered to the processing plants. Other farmers are spraying milk over their fields because they can’t get the milk to market. Still others are dumping loads of vegetables to rot in the sun. And, at the same time, some grocery stores are beginning to limit the amount of food individuals can purchase.
We KNOW farmers are resilient. They weather storms of all kinds each and every year. They just need to have access to a system that allows for a different approach. A system that builds resiliency. This is but one area for which we must create the capacity for a resilient society. Spending our time blaming others is not a solution. Evaluating what we have done, how we could do things better, and planning, preparing and practicing is an investment in our future.