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Recommended Reading For Disaster, Crisis, and Emergency Managers Part 1: Uncovering Disaster Timelines

Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with a number of veterans looking to enter the world of emergency management. This is a new profession for many of them, and I’ve had many discussions with them about some first steps to take as they begin learning about the field. Some of these vets had recently transitioned out of the military while others had been getting involved in disaster management by volunteering with groups like Team Rubicon, which led to the realization that managing disasters and crises was a career path that spoke to them.

While the latter option more closely resembles my personal journey into emergency management, when I first became interested in the management of disasters—both natural and man-made—I would often ask people working in the field what books they recommended I read so I could begin educating myself.  What I found shocking was that I would very rarely get a solid answer about books that would be good starting points for my personal study.

Maybe I was just asking people who weren’t book readers to begin with, but I often found myself getting directed to Red Cross training manuals or online FEMA classes as a default. While those are great opportunities to dig into the technical aspects of disaster response, I was looking to get beyond a training focus and instead deepen my understanding of disasters through education.

For veterans (or anyone else) looking to make emergency management their career and looking to jumpstart their personal education process as they transition into the field, books offer an invaluable opportunity gain a solid foundation of knowledge as they enter the field. While future posts in this series will include many more books that have contributed to my professional development in different functional areas of disaster and crisis management, here are the first three books that I recommend to aspiring emergency managers, focused on understanding the timeline of a disaster.

Book Recommendation #1: Storm of the Century: Tragedy, Heroism, Survival and the Epic True Story of America’s Deadliest Natural Disaster: The Great Gulf Hurricane of 1900, by Al Roker.

An Overview of the Book

This book takes a look at the hurricane that struck Galveston, TX, in 1900 and killed over 10,000 people, nearly erasing the city from the map.  This was a crisis that was made worse by the arrogance of forecasters who demonstrated closed-minded decision-making (they refused to believe that a hurricane could turn west after crossing Cuba and head towards Texas) and ignored contradictory information that could have provided the residents of Galveston advanced warning of the coming storm.

That arrogance, displayed by people without skin in the game and who would be far removed from the impact of their decisions, prevented authorities from warning people about the impending storm. Advance warning would have allowed these people to seek the safety of mainland Texas and would have saved numerous lives. Even though the city of Galveston created enhanced defenses against future storms and eventually built itself back up stronger than they’d been before, this book provides a great lesson about the full length of a disaster. This resulting timeline lets you see the opportunities that can be taken advantage of to protect the public from the dangers still to come.

Main Takeaway:

Disasters don’t start the minute a hurricane makes landfall, and they don’t end when the rain stops. The timeline of a storm includes the planning, preparations, and warnings that occur before the impacts of the disaster are felt, including all of the actions that go into the recovery after a disaster of this magnitude.  This extends the life cycle of an incident to years before and years after the relatively short period of time when the incident itself is actually occurring.

Applications:

After reading and re-reading this book multiple times, I used the contents of the story to build out a timeline of this particular incident that could then be generalized to apply to any other disaster. I placed just about every action that was described in the book (those taken by homeowners, the storm, government officials, forecasters, and everyone whose story was told) onto a timeline.  As the story is not always presented chronologically, this allowed me to capture all of the details and experiences of the characters and the storm in a linear format and in a way that allowed me to capture the decisions that were made in the years leading up to the hurricane and in the years that followed.

Once I was done “mapping” this particular storm, I created a second timeline that was designed to apply the sequence of events to the countless other disasters that have occurred throughout history. I took each of the actions that occurred in the 1900 hurricane and generalized them so that the sequence could be applied to another incident. For example, I took the note that “the meteorologist began telling people to get off the beach,” and changed it to “initial warnings were issued to the public.”

This second step allowed me to create a template for the actions that are often taken during the preparation, response, and recovery of a disaster that can be overlaid onto other incidents as well. This second step has also allowed me to compare methods and techniques for issuing public warnings (as an example) between this incident and the others I’ve studied since.

This generalized disaster timeline translated to a poster that is about five feet long and that I keep hung on the wall in my office, as I reference it constantly.  Changes have been made to it over time as the number of incidents I’ve studied has expanded, but the bulk of the document reflects the details told in Storm of the Century. If you’re interested, you can pick up this book on Amazon here.

Follow On Recommendation #1: Want another book to consider the same timeline-style approach to mapping a disaster? Take a look at The Johnstown Flood: The Incredible Story Behind One of the Most Devastating Disasters America Has Ever Known, by David McCullough, which I used to confirm my timeline of events and ensure that it applied beyond just the one aforementioned hurricane.

Follow On Recommendation #2: Interested in another book to consider the same hurricane? If you’re looking to build depth around a single incident and learn from the different accounts and the different historians who have covered the 1900 hurricane that devastated Galveston, TX, consider Issac’s Storm: A Man, a Time and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson.

The Goal

As we have discussed in our series of posts about “learning how to learn,” taking the time to define the rules of a skill can help you make the most out of your time spent in professional development. The more quickly you can identify the rules of a field through observation, put those rules into practice, and experiment with those rules to truly understand why they exist and how they apply, you can achieve higher levels of learning and application than you could if your pursuit was less purposeful.

The timeline approach to mapping a disaster is one way that you can use historical disasters to reduce the amount of uncertainty about what to expect when you first incident arises as an emergency manager by giving you an idea of what is coming and what has already occurred. The elements of the timeline help to establish the rules of disasters that you can dive into individually to develop a deeper understanding of disasters.

In a future post, I’ll take a look at a second set of books I’d recommend you read as you transition into the world of emergency, crisis, and disaster management.


 

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