Seeing America through the Eye of Hurricane Sandy

EWC international fellows take home lessons from the storm

Christina Monroe, EWC Education Project Specialist & Asia Pacific Leadership Program alumna

(APLP fellows in NYC during Hurricane Sandy witness resilience of the American people.)

It seemed the worst place to be on Oct 29th, but for fellows trying to understand America, New York City was the perfect spot.

On Monday, October 29th just hours before one of the largest hurricanes to ever hit the East Coast came ashore, 17 international fellows and a few staff from the East-West Center hunkered down in room 103 of a Midtown Manhattan hotel.  Prepared with flashlights, instant noodles and bathtubs of water, we watched as President Obama addressed citizens in high alert.  Our eyes darted between the TV and cell phones, as we rapidly texted panicked friends and family.  In a cruel twist, just days earlier these same friends and family had sighed relief that their loved ones weren’t in Hawaii during the tsunami warning.

Luckily we weren’t in an evacuation zone and, based on predictions, needed only to prepare for high wind, rain and power outages.  With all transportation in and out of the city halted, we had no other choice but to sit together, watch the news and hope for the best.

Ironically the fellows, as part of their Asia Pacific Leadership Program (APLP) curriculum, had completed a workshop on crisis leadership just before departing for the U.S. east coast.  The purpose of the U.S. field study, to understand America’s diversity and US-Asia relations through travel to Washington DC, Virginia, Boston, Portland, Maine, and Charleston, South Carolina, now seemed insignificant compared to the topic of crisis leadership.

We had agreed to meet at 3:00 p.m., after preparing ourselves and our rooms, to watch the news and talk about what we saw.  The APLP staff excitedly reviewed the crisis leadership PowerPoint presentation in anticipation of discussions on President Obama, Governor Christie, and Mayor Bloomberg’s actions.  We expected debates on the classic questions:  How can leaders make and communicate decisions quickly?  In times of crisis is “command and control” leadership necessary?  Or more nuanced questions such as, should Governor Christie have called citizens who considered ignoring the mandatory evacuation “selfish and stupid”?  The storm provided a live case study with 24-hour footage and ticker analysis of every action the leaders took.  The Perfect Storm of Leadership Studies!

So it came as a surprise that night during the storm and over the next few days that few wanted to talk about the leaders’ actions.  Sure, they commented on how President Obama had gone immediately to the impacted zone, as opposed to waiting a week like the Myanmar Senior General after Cyclone Nargis.  Or how genuinely involved Governor Christie was, as oppose to the current Mayor of Beijing whose act of solidarity with victims of the July floods was to eat instant noodles.  What they wanted to talk about instead of the designated leaders were the leadership actions of average Americans.

“We saw the resilience of American society as we walked around the day after the storm,” remarked APLP fellow Yuan Liu. “People doing what they could for others.  There was a small solar power station providing free charging.  There was a guy posting signs near the water ‘Danger! Do not lean on railing’.  Such resilience can’t come from government.  People make the society resilient…The experience in New York made me believe we can improve in China.”

“I saw Americans thinking in positive ways not negative ways,” noted APLP fellow Ismail Sulaiman, who volunteered during the 2006 tsunami that devastated his Aceh community. “What they feel and what happened, they see from a positive perspective. After the storm they have the spirit to rebuild, to improve their lives.  Just like in Aceh where people lost all their property and family, they look to the future and rebuild a new life.”

APLP fellow Amir Ramin, Advisor to the High Peace Commission in Kabul, pointed out, “What impresses me is the resilience of the American people as a whole.  Today I heard someone say that this disaster gives us the opportunity to rebuild ourselves back even stronger than before.  The people of Afghanistan will need this kind of resolve to build our own country back.  As an Afghan I find this American spirit very inspirational.”

Of course Americans know all is not perfect in American resilience to disasters as made painfully clear during Hurricane Katrina and even now during Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts.  But on October 29th we saw working warning systems, clear communication from media outlets and political leaders, wide-spread public awareness of how to prepare and where to go (even if not heeded), and effective coordination between government agencies, NGOs and the public.

What they saw immediately after the storm while talking with people in the devastated areas was genuinely inspiring to these international visitors from Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam:  average Americans taking action for other’s benefit:  The neighbor bringing food and water to elders; the guy with power that ran an extension cord to the sidewalk for others use; or the local resident that met our group only once and called to ensure we were safe, despite having lost her home.

The fellows could have been disappointed that all their meetings with high-profile leaders were canceled, but they weren’t.  They were leaving with a head full of leadership lessons and, more importantly, practical skills that could prevent the next natural disaster from destroying their house, their neighborhood, or entire city.  They didn’t just watch the trailer – they saw the whole feature film from front row seats.  This gave them more than abstract lessons and feel-good phrases, it provided specific transferable lessons on how to prepare for, manage, communicate, and lead during times of crisis.  If Hurricane Sandy’s sister visits the Indian Ocean, APLP fellows will be ready to meet her.

What’s more these fellows understand America in a way most international visitors don’t.  What better time to see a people’s core values, their established systems developed from years of trial and error or the actions leaders take in response to citizens who elect them into power.  There may have been wind, rain, and few lights, but these fellows saw America more clearly than most through the eye of Hurricane Sandy.

(Photo: Michael Tapp —  NYC residents helping their neighbors during Hurricane Sandy. One young woman provides a free food station during the power outage.)