P!Nterview: Praying shouldn’t be Plan B
Warren Lee has been facing life and death situations as an emergency manager for over a decade. Recently, he talked to P!N’s Julia Dawson about the storms he’s faced and the philosophies that keep communities safe.
Q: What is one of the most harrowing emergencies you’ve responded to?
A: During the Winter Storm of 2000, I was the Emergency Director in Lee County North Carolina and had never before experienced snowfall of that magnitude. Our citizens awoke that cold January morning to 24-26″ of snow across the entire county. I remember “plowing” snow with the bumper of my vehicle as I got out at first light to assess the situation. I went to assist one of my Emergency Medical Service (EMS) units on a routine call and quickly realized that we were going to have difficulty reaching people with medical emergencies.
I had visions of people dying in their homes because we couldn’t reach them or freezing to death in automobiles trying to reach the hospital. I immediately began making calls to North Carolina Emergency Management to secure high-wheeled military vehicles to help us reach folks in their homes. I knew no-one was expecting or prepared to deal with that much snow! We didn’t have widespread power outages, but every road in the area was practically impassable to all but the largest four-wheel drive vehicles. People were effectively trapped in their homes.
The phones in our emergency operations center started ringing by daylight with citizens’ pleas for help. A young mother was one of the first to call, stating that she didn’t believe we’d get much snow, so she hadn’t gone to the grocery store for milk or diapers for her baby. That was typical of the kind of calls that we’d continue to get for the following week. Stores weren’t open and roads weren’t passable. Opening shelters would prove to be a major undertaking, taxing our resources to the limits. This event certainly pushed us to the extremes!
Q: As an emergency manager you’ve seen a special slice of human behavior- how different people react in life and death situations. Please share any trends or important lessons regarding this part of your work.
A: People become very humble when they realize that poor decisions made on their part could cost them their life. There’s nothing quite so helpless as the feeling you get when someone who has elected not to evacuate their beachfront home calls as the wind, rain and waves are threatening to take the home from beneath them, and you know there’s no one to send to get them. Praying shouldn’t be “Plan B”!
Q: What is the most challenging aspect of your work; what is the most joyful?
A: Doing more with less has always been one of our biggest challenges. We often find ourselves in positions of knowing what needs to be done and not having the time or resources to do it. Resourcefulness is our most used tool. Knowing at the end of the day that I’ve made a positive
difference in someone’s life is my biggest reward.
Q: Is there any tool or resource that you and your fellow emergency managers do not have that you desperately need to improve your ability to successfully respond to emergencies?
A: The single resource that I desperately need is time. There just never seems to be enough to do all the things I want or need to do.
Q: How do you remain calm and effective in emergency situations? Do you practice any special calming technique?
A: It’s just my demeanor. I know that I have a highly trained team of individuals working alongside me who know their jobs and who are dedicated to providing the highest level of customer service possible.
Q: What is your personal preparedness philosophy?
A: If you don’t plan for it, it will happen.