Dean Barber

How Disaster Reveals Our True Selves

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on August 31, 2017 at 7:56 pm

Within hours after the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, 2013, the slogan “Boston Strong” appeared as a hashtag on Twitter and rapidly spread around the world.

It was an expression of Boston’s unity following the tragedy, but it is also very much an American expression. Whenever and wherever disaster strikes, come hell or high water, Americans come together.

And so we watched on our TV screens this great coming together as Hurricane Harvey inundated Houston and the nearby region. A flotilla of small boats and inflatable rafts were launched by first responders and citizen volunteers to rescue those trapped in their homes. Helicopters plucked people from rooftops and chest-high waters.

NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt, who spent five days in Texas covering the storm, told GQ Magazine that Hurricane Harvey showcased the best of us.

“I think that when something of a magnitude of a Katrina or a Harvey happens, that we see our true selves—we revert to who we are. And we are a good people who know when it’s time to check all our differences at the door and come together—and I’ve seen it time and time again at natural disasters that people focus on one another because in one way or another they’re all saying to themselves we’re together in this. I have nothing but admiration for the people here. Their self-reliance was apparent.”

Here in Texas, where I live, self-reliance and compassion for others is part and parcel of the brand. We saw Houston Strong, Beaumont Strong and Port Arthur Strong. The storm personified true grit.

My friend, David Dodd, founder and president of the New Orleans-based International Public Private Partnerships in Resilience Center, Inc., agreed that resiliency is cultivated in Texas. Dodd’s firm specializes in economic recovery and resilience, born from leading economic recovery efforts after the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“Texans are proud—true Texans say, “the State of Texas”. There is meaning behind that. Don’t forget that Texas was its own country. (Republic of Texas, March 2, 1836, to February 19, 1846.) They know that and they feel they are separate and apart from everybody else,” said Dodd, who grew up in Louisiana on the border with Texas, and whose father’s business was in Texas.

“The upside of that pride is that they are going to take care of their own. They are not going to let that mental image of their state as being the greatest place in the world collapse. They are going to do whatever it takes to help their neighbors, if only to uphold that image. The result is still good.”

The Worst Natural Disaster

But tough, tough days lie ahead. Hurricane Harvey is the most costly natural disaster to ever befall the United States, said Dr. Joel N. Myers, founder, president and chairman of AccuWeather in a prepared statement Wednesday.

“This is the costliest and worst natural disaster in American history. AccuWeather has raised its estimate of the impact to the nation’s gross national produce, or GDP, to $190 billion or a full one percent, which exceeds totals of economic impact of Katrina and Sandy combined.

“The GDP is $19 trillion currently. Business leaders and the Federal Reserve, major banks, insurance companies, etc. should begin to factor in the negative impact this catastrophe will have on business, corporate earnings and employment. The disaster is just beginning in certain areas.

“Parts of Houston, the United States’ fourth largest city will be uninhabitable for weeks and possibly months due to water damage, mold, disease-ridden water and all that will follow this 1,000-year flood.”

The National Weather Service announced that a gauge in Cedar Bayou, near Mont Belvieu, Texas, recorded a preliminary rainfall of 51.88 inches.  Experts say it may be weeks before floodwaters recede in some locations.

Prior to Harvey, there were nine weather/climate disaster events this year with losses exceeding $1 billion each across the U.S., resulting in the deaths of 57 people, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI). At least 28 people have died in Texas due to Harvey and that number could rise.

Not counting Harvey, the U.S. has sustained 211 weather and climate disasters since 1980 where overall damages/costs reached or exceeded $1 billion The total cost exceeds $1.2 trillion, according to the NCEI.

An Investment With a Return

Economic developers have thought that communities should invest in infrastructure, education and workforce training in order to attract and retain corporate investment. Dodd says they should also think the same way about resilience.

“If you had a bridge and you knew that bridge could go out in the next 20 years, wouldn’t you go ahead and invest in strengthening that bridge? That’s the way communities need to look at resilience. It is an investment that has a return,” he said.

On a personal note, if I were advising a corporate client on a location analysis project and we were looking at an area prone to natural disasters, be it a hurricane, a tornado, or an earthquake, I would be asking questions about community preparedness. I would want to know about special building codes, or nearby shelters, evacuation routes, etc.

Facing the Facts

Some communities do not want to face the facts. I know one that wanted to run from the fact that they have had some past disasters. They didn’t even want to talk about it.

When a community leader learned that prospect companies were asking about disaster preparedness and recovery, he pushed the economic development organization to face the issue head on. Today that same community has a brochure outlining what it has done to become more resilient in the face of a disaster. It was a smart move.

A Silver Lining

The thought that something good could come out of tragedy, especially where there has been loss of life, may seem strange or even callous. But the fact is that we learn from disasters, and sometimes they even present us with opportunities or spark ideas.

“There is in every cloud a silver lining,” said Dodd. “This gives a community the opportunity for a reset. Ironically, it is sometimes easier to do that after a major disruption such as a natural disaster for a community to look at where it is and rebuild in the image that it wants to.”

And in that recovery and rebuilding process, that reinvention of place, a community can and should become more resilient.

Joplin, Missouri

The EF5-rated multiple-vortex tornado struck Joplin, Missouri, late in the afternoon of Sunday, May 22, 2011. It reached a maximum width of nearly 1 mile during its path through the southern part of the city.

It left death and destruction in its wake, killing 161 people, injured some 1,150 others, and causing property damage amounting to $2.8 billion. It was the deadliest tornado to strike the U.S. since 1947, and the seventh-deadliest overall. It also ranks as the costliest single tornado in U.S. history.

In the aftermath of the storm, Joplin Strong emerged.

“We had contingency plans about what happens if our chamber building were to burn down or if it were hit by a tornado, but we never anticipated what happens if 500 of our businesses are destroyed or are substantially damaged or 4,000 of your houses are gone,” said Rob O’Brian, president at Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce & Joplin Regional Partnership.

Much of the response was not unlike seat-of-the-pants flying.

“We had to think about what are the needs were and how to address those needs, things that economic development organizations think about day in and day out on a normal scale. We just had to do it much faster,” O’Brian said.

A Marathon

O’Brian agrees with Dodd that a disaster can change a community’s vision about itself and its future.

“When a disaster happens, it brings a lot of focus and a lot of energy to the forefront. People start talking about recovery and rebuilding and how we can do it and how we can do it differently. They start thinking about how we can raise the bar and end up with a better community for ourselves,” said O’Brian.

“In the heat of the moment, it seems like it will be a far stretch to get there. But within days, people were talking about business opportunities, better housing, and building their businesses back in a better way. You do get there over time. But it is a marathon, although the first initial weeks when everybody is scrambling to address immediate needs, it feels like a sprint. You just preserve and keep working on it every day.”

Ideas Revived

Some ideas that had been discussed and essentially shelved prior to the tornado were revived.

“We had energy and we had momentum, and people came forward saying this was our opportunity. It changed some of the vision and brought focus to bringing those projects, talked about for years, to fruition and all with the idea of coming up with a better community,” O’Brian said.

And a better community has resulted. In June, the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences officially opened a second campus in Joplin. It was Missouri’s first new medical school in 44 years. KCU broke ground on the facility last year on the site of Mercy Hospital Joplin, a temporary facility constructed in the aftermath of the tornado. The land and hospital were donated to the school, along with $30 million in local funding. No public dollars were used.

There are probably lessons to be learned here for Houston.

New Orleans

I look at New Orleans today, still in recovery mode 12 years after Hurricane Katrina.

About 100,000 fewer people live there today than the nearly half-million who had lived there before the storm. In some neighborhoods, like the Lower Ninth Ward, many residents never returned, but newcomers have arrived.

New Orleans now has a growing tech industry, with companies such as Electronic Arts, Gameloft, High Voltage Software, inXile, iSeatz, and Turbosquid having opened studios there in recent years.

It is also is a whiter and more expensive city. Gentrification and a growing cosmopolitan atmosphere has sparked debate within the city as to its historic culture is being lost.

Of course, it is for the people of New Orleans to decide the future of their city. But if income, education and corporate investment are all rising, and I believe that they are, I would hope that opportunities for all are rising, too.

There are probably lessons to be learned here for Houston.

Their Strength is Our Strength

Wherever disaster strikes, Americans reveal their true selves, their true grit. They may not know they have this wellspring of resilience deep within them, but they find it. Knocked down, they find a way to get back up and rebuild their lives. They soldier on.

We mourn for the dead and empathize for those who have lost so much from Hurricane Harvey. They have demonstrated courage and compassion, and given the rest of us faith in ourselves and our fellow man. Their strength is our strength. We are with them.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Dallas. BBA helps companies and communities. (Send us your RFPs.) Mr. Barber is available as a keynotes speaker and can be reached at or at 972-890-3733.


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