Sunday, January 19, 2014

On the value of being afraid

In the Cycle of Life of an emergency manager in Florida there are 3 seasons: Hurricane season, the Christmas holiday season, and Getting Ready for Hurricane season. There is comfort in this cycle, in the repetition of tasks, and orientation to a new purpose. If this is January then it's time to get ready for June 1st.

As I have in the last half-dozen years, I entered this particular season with a sense of foreboding and even fear. What if this is the year the Big One hits Florida? Am I ready? Is the SERT ready? Is the national mass care community ready? And if the answer to any one of these questions is NO, then what must I do to get them ready?

To give you a sense of what I'm talking about, to relieve your concern that I am being overly dramatic, let me say that my idea of the Big One is a storm equivalent in size and intensity to the one that pulverized the Philippines last year. And my nightmare is that this storm strikes the 6.5 million people in southeast Florida. I will leave details of such a disaster to your imagination. I have been in enough disasters to have developed a vivid picture of everything such a disaster would entail.

Of all the worrying questions that spring to my mind as the Cycle turns to January I can only control one: Am I ready? And the answer I give myself every time is that I am more ready this year than I was the year before. Whatever that means. As for the other questions, those that involve people and organizations that I cannot control but only influence, I can only wonder if they are as scared as I am.

In Kuwait, on my way home, the Army asked me if I had ever been scared during the ten months that I had spent in Iraq. I said no. I was wrong. There were a number of times that I was scared in Iraq. Fear is a rational response to real or perceived risk. Being afraid focuses the mind and can improve performance.

So why did I give the wrong answer? I have thought about this a lot. Was it the myth that Real Men don't get scared? Was it the fact that I had not engaged in direct combat with the enemy, been subjected to the many horrors of warfare, and thus had no right to say that I had ever been scared? No. Rather, I believe that I misinterpreted the question. I perceived the question to be, not whether I was scared (although that was the word used in the sentence I read), but whether I was terrified. Terror is an irrational response to a real or perceived risk and degrades performance, sometimes to the point that one is ineffective at almost any task. I had been scared, but never terrified. I cannot say, if circumstances had been different, whether I would have ever been seized with terror. I like to believe that the answer to that is no, but I have never subjected my vivid imagination to such a test.

I am afraid of the Big Hurricane hitting my state, and me being in a position of responsibility to do something about it, and to be prepared for the eventuality. There's value in being afraid of some things.

But I'm not terrified: at least, not now.