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How To Manage Strategy During A Crisis [5 Lessons]

Although the two crises are very different, lessons many of us learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina can be applied even today. 

Director & Animal Rescuer

 

August 29, 2005. I remember it well. This is the date that Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast. It had been a particularly active hurricane season. Having grown up in Mobile, Alabama, and I’m sure those across the Gulf Coast would agree, hurricane preparation is a way of life. This season, however, seemed different. Because of the high activity, there was some fatigue. So, when Katrina began threatening the coast, many of us were just over it. Nonetheless, we took the necessary precautions and braced ourselves.

Where we are today with the COVID-19 pandemic conjures up similar emotions.  Take precautions and brace ourselves.   And, although the two crises are very different, lessons many of us learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina can be applied even today:

  1. Recovery needs a road map, which is best designed by many.
  2. There is power (and hope) in a clear, strategic framework.
  3. Don’t hesitate to ask for help from the experts.
  4. Sometimes all you can do is make the next, best decision.
  5. Quality leadership can make or break recovery.

In sharing my experience and small role in the rebuilding of a community following a crisis, I hope you can draw some bit of inspiration and hope. While every organization is different and every crisis is different, the lessons learned post-Katrina can serve as a starting point for positioning your own organization or community to make meaningful strides as we look forward to the future.

How it started

Hurricane Katrina hit during the day.  This is particularly important because by the time it passed over it was nighttime.  There was no way of stepping out and seeing the destruction that we all knew had occurred.  So, we waited until dawn.  Many of my family members from Mississippi had driven over to stay with family in Mobile, which appeared to be a better option based on the storm’s trajectory.  When the sun rose, we caravanned back over to Pascagoula, MS, and were stunned by what we saw.

My main goal was to get to my aunt.  She and her sons had opted to ride out the storm in her home, one block from the beach.  There was no way to reach her by car, so I parked as close as I could and began making a long trek through muck.  I finally rounded the corner to see that she was indeed alive.  Wasting no time, she and my cousin (her son) followed me back to my car, they hopped in, and we traveled back to my home so they could get cleaned up.  On the trip back to Mobile, the story that they told of how they survived was simply incomprehensible.  The aftermath was no different.

Hurricane Katrina was a pivotal moment in my life and countless others, who endured its destruction.  There was so much loss.  It was shocking – unimaginable.  At the time, I was working as a development manager for a real estate firm.  We had already undertaken a strategy to move our pursuits off the coast because of the cost of insurance, so I was working on a multifamily project in Birmingham traveling back and forth from Mobile.  After Katrina hit, I felt led to somehow contribute to the recovery and rebuilding effort, so when I was contacted by Fannie Mae to join their disaster relief team, it was an easy decision to make and one fully supported by my employer.

For the next two and half years, I worked in the Katrina space as part of the Fannie Mae disaster relief team and then as the first President and CEO of the Gulf Coast Renaissance Corporation, a non-profit organization that was established post-Katrina to facilitate the development of workforce housing on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.   These were the best of times and the worst of times.  There is something about a crisis that brings out the good and, unfortunately, the not so good.  In reflecting on that time and where we are today with COVID-19, I recognize that these two experiences are very different in so many ways.  The lessons that many of us learned working in the Katrina space ring true in a crisis situation.  Here are a few key insights in the context of my experience.

1. Recovery needs a road map, which is best designed by many.  

Mississippi came out of the gate very quickly with the understanding that there needed to be a plan.  The Governor’s Commission for Recovery, Renewal and Rebuilding was established with the mission to “forge a way through the pain this hurricane visited on our citizens, so that in 30 years, the legacy of the work we now begin is a Mississippi that enjoys higher prosperity and a better quality of life for all than we dared imagine before August 29, 2005.”

The Commission was made up of hundreds of volunteers from across the Mississippi gulf coast and the state representing industry, philanthropists, local government, non-profit organizations and citizens.  With a clear understanding of the lessons learned and a vision for the future, in just four short months through a well-structured committee framework and massive community engagement undertaking, the Commission rolled out a road map.  This was not just any plan.  This was a path made by way of a massive collaboration effort, which resulted in a set of recommendations that included identification of organizations on the ground that would serve as implementers and the resources that would be tapped to help make it happen.  As with any plan, however, going from conceptual to implementation is challenging and this time was no different.

2. There is power (and hope) in a clear, strategic framework.

The Gulf Coast Renaissance Corporation was created by the Gulf Coast Business Council, a group of business and community leaders established in the wake of Katrina and in alignment with the recommendations of the Governor’s Commission.  Mississippi had lost 65,000 homes.  Even if industry could rebound, there was no place for their workers to live.  This was the driving force behind the Renaissance Corporation.

Renaissance was envisioned as a facilitating organization that would create public-private partnerships, remove obstacles to the rebuilding effort and stimulate private real estate investment in the coastal counties of Mississippi.  So, our first step was to establish a clear, strategic framework.

Vision: To serve as the capstone organization in the rebuilding of the Mississippi Gulf Coast by removing obstacles to redevelopment, creating partnerships, and stimulating investment in order to create vibrant, diverse, sustainable communities that offer residents the highest quality of life.

Mission: To facilitate the development of mixed-income communities that provide safe, high-quality, affordable housing for the workforce of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Goals:

  • To affect the development of 10,000 homes by partnering with the public sector, nonprofit, and for-profit developers.
  • To remove existing barriers to development by instituting an aggressive plan of land acquisition and gap funding.
  • To ensure efficient development patterns by focusing on opportunities in close proximity to existing employment centers in the three coastal counties.
  • To foster the redevelopment of communities as environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable through responsible land use practices, with a particular focus on mixed-use and mixed-income communities.
  • To create efficiencies through open competition for development opportunities.
  • To achieve a total capitalization of $120 million in public funds ($100 million) and private funds ($20 million).

This framework became our guiding light and generated tremendous hope for the future, but we knew we needed help.

3. Don’t hesitate to ask for help from the experts.

Our goals were big – 10,000 homes over a 10-year period.  Although we had a lot of expertise at the table, we knew we needed help in designing the delivery mechanism.

I had been a longtime member of the Urban Land Institute known to most as ULI.  They, too, had deployed staff to the Gulf Coast to support the recovery and rebuilding effort.  I had worked even more closely with ULI while serving on the disaster relief team with Fannie Mae particularly in the hard hit fishing village of Bayou La Batre, AL, where we brought together a team of experts to develop a plan and inspire hope for recovery and rebuilding.

So, I reached out for the help of ULI Advisory Services (again).  Fifteen national housing experts from across the United States stepped up and volunteered to help.  Their work culminated with the Mississippi Gulf Coast Finance Forum at which time their recommendations, which included an employer-assisted housing program, gap financing program for homeowners, and developer assistance programs, were rolled out.

4. Sometimes all you can do is make the next, best decision.

Now, with a clear, strategic framework and a better understanding of how to deliver on our goals, we sought resources.   Industry had invested directly in the work of the Renaissance Corporation and we wanted to use that investment to leverage post-Katrina resources that had come to the state by way of the federal government.   So, we competed for resources and were successful.

We ran into three key problems.  The first was our original estimation of the gap.  Our proposal to the state had been predicated on the fact that there would be an approximate $20,000 gap between the cost of housing and its’ affordability to the workforce.  We would use these funds to directly bridge that gap for the homeowner.  The gap, however, was much bigger than expected.  On top of this, insurance companies had completely pulled out of insuring real estate in coastal communities.  Even when the insurers returned, the rates were cost prohibitive.  In addition, the federal resources came down to the states through the conduit, Community Development Block Grant (CDBG).  CDBG dollars are typically set aside for low income families.   Families who earned between 80% to 120% of area median income were not, in a typical scenario, eligible.  This segment represented a significant portion of the workforce, who lost their homes.

These were all obstacles that came into play.  They were unpredictable and required the organization to be nimble.  We took them as they came and made the next, best decision to move us forward.  We sought to increase the size of the “bridge,” invest in areas further north, and requested waivers to ensure that all segments of the workforce were included.

5. Quality leadership can make or break recovery.

After my time working in the Katrina space, I can’t emphasize more the importance of quality leadership during the time of a crisis.  Those communities who made strides post-Katrina were led by individuals, who were on a mission and it was personal.  Some were local and others at the state and federal levels.  The good ones couldn’t sleep at night and did whatever it took to make progress. There are so many stories of heroism and selfless leadership during and in the aftermath of Katrina.  To recount them all would be impossible.  My takeaway was and is that champions come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are on the front lines with little visibility and others are highly visible in their roles.  These individuals through their undying commitment make the difference in times of crisis.

Exceptional crisis leadership requires many of the same core skills as everyday leadership.  However, those skills are coming into play at a heightened level and under extreme pressure.  Some everyday leaders do not make good crisis leaders.  The burden may just be too heavy to carry.  The great leaders following Hurricane Katrina understood these three precepts:

  1. It’s not about me. Great leaders understand that there is a larger purpose.  They know that removing self and self-gain from their decision making can open up the door to opportunities not just to survive but to thrive in a crisis environment.  Navigating adversity, finding opportunities for growth and contributions, and working with others to achieve the impossible can only be accomplished with selfless, empathetic leadership.
  2. Confidence pairs best with humility. Leadership has a major role in setting the tone during a crisis.  Confidence, not arrogance, coupled with humility, not self-promotion, gives communities faith in their leadership and hope in the future.
  3. Forthrightness and clear communication builds trust. Communities value honesty and openness.  They want to know what is really going on.  Great leaders understand this and are not threatened by transparency.  During a crisis, when leadership conceals information, is unclear, or reduces the level of communication, trust is lost, and fear sets in.  Great leaders know the importance of effective communication especially as a mechanism to deliver messages of hope.

Conclusion

How an organization or a community responds to a crisis will vary.   There is no one-size-fits-all solution.   Hopefully, by reading this, we’ve provided you with some small ounce of inspiration and  given you a few ideas for how to advance amidst change.

Thank you for being a part of our community. We’re here for you. Let us know if we can help in any way. Online tools like ClearPoint can be helpful with communicating quickly and easily across the organization, but as you can see, it will take a lot more than a piece of software to guide your organization through a crisis.

How To Manage Strategy During A Crisis [5 Lessons]
 

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