You know that old cliché: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” I recently saw evidence of this in spades when Hurricane Sandy not only hit the Northeast—but also hit the Save the Children headquarters and, what’s worse, many of our staff members’ homes. It’s fascinating to see how people react when their lives are upended by a disaster, especially when they spend so much of their own lives helping others though crises. So when calamity struck in their own backyard, I saw over and over again what my Save the Children colleagues did first: redouble their efforts to help others.
Rather than dwelling on their own circumstances, much of the team deployed right away to our shelter programs for displaced families in New York and New Jersey. Or they stepped in to help families in their own neighborhoods, sheltering friends and family in Connecticut or New York who lost so much. Others dug in to start repairing our building, which is a long, low office that sits on a tidal river. When a surge of water caused the river to overflow, water ran across the parking lot and through the entire first floor—up to a depth of about a foot and a half—soaking the floors, walls and furniture.
For me, it was a time to learn more about how to manage better in crisis—or, in our case, multiple crises including a full-blown disaster response for children, an office in considerable disarray, and a staff that was scattered, without power and dealing with lots of personal and family issues.
One of the first lessons I learned was how important it is to immediately communicate with our teams. Luckily, our business continuity plan included the ability to run our email and IT services out of Washington, DC, so most of our systems were back up and running within 48 hours. We were able to get messages to staff through a variety of channels to let them know what was happening and our phone tree helped us contact every staff person to make sure they were okay. Thankfully, none of our staff was personally hurt.
I also learned how important it is to get as many of the team in Connecticut physically back together as possible. By the Friday after the Monday night storm, and with power still only partially restored, we opened space across the street. By the following Monday, the second floor of our two-story building was up and operational and the building was safe for people to come back to work. Most of our 125 staff members from the first floor relocated upstairs and set up in hallways, in shared offices spaces, or worked remotely so we could continue business—if not quite-as-usual—at least fully operational and back together.
What impressed me most throughout the response to our own internal crisis, though, was how people just managed themselves—certainly without needing direction from the senior team. When the power was out, they figured out how to work from anywhere that was open including local malls, coffee shops, hotel lobbies and libraries. They pulled each other together to talk about what had to be done and set up shop on whatever patch of space was available, even if it was a section of carpet in a hallway. Despite lots of challenges, our people simply got on with the mission of helping children. As always, whether the work that needs to be done is in New Jersey or in Nepal, Save the Children staff keeps that mission front-and-center and does whatever is necessary to help the kids we serve.
I hope this kind of emergency—inside and outside Save the Children—doesn’t hit again anytime soon. But if it does, I know the team will pull together to make sure that kids’ needs are met, wherever they live. And as we switch our focus to the recovery for kids on the East Coast and our own building, I know I’ll be able to depend on our people to roll up their sleeves, find out what needs to be done and put kids first no matter what.
Because there’s one thing that Superstorm Sandy showed me: when the going gets tough, Save the Children just gets tougher.