Imagine not knowing on any given day whether you might find yourself working with a new team of people whom you’d never met. And, your work might be in the midst of a major natural disaster – you may not have electricity, communications or even a real bed to sleep on in a converted high school gym. That’s the life of a disaster responder, and as Regional CEO for the Southeastern Michigan Region of the American Red Cross, that’s why LaForice Nealy plans every day for situations that go beyond the worst-case scenario for most other leaders.
A relatively new Detroiter, Nealy arrived in 2012 from the COO position at the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago. One of the things he knew he’d be dealing with was Metro Detroit’s outsized need for disaster response and the demands it places on the local Red Cross. “We are a strong disaster response unit just because of the sheer volume of disaster occurrences that happen here,” he said. “The Southeastern Michigan Region responds to an average of 1,500 disasters a year… That’s actually more than they respond to in Chicago over the same period of time.”
In terms of issues faced by residents recovering from disasters, one difference between Detroit and Chicago is that Metro Detroiters aren’t as mobile thanks to our region’s issues with public transit. “In Chicago there’s a very robust public transportation system… It seems that here, you really have to have a vehicle to get around,” Nealy noted. “They’re really tied to a community because they may not be able to get around as easily in the event that they don’t have a car.”
When Red Cross staff and volunteers respond to a national disaster, Nealy said, much of the hard work ensuring that they’ll be able to work together in potentially extreme environments has already been done. “The key to our ability to respond is what we do in our respective chapters,” he said. “Our training is standardized, people are learning the same skills, they have the same expectations. The work that people do day-to-day in their respective chapters is the same work that you would do when you go out nationally... Standardization and consistency are really the strength of our ability to bring so many people from all over the country – in the case of Sandy we had disaster volunteers from all 50 states.”
The stakes in a disaster are high and the margin for mistakes is small, making leadership more important than ever. “The thing about the Red Cross: If we don’t initiate a good start to a response, it takes a long time to catch up,” said Nealy. “If you think of social media, and how quickly information gets shared across the country and across the world, we have to have good, strong leaders there who are comfortable making a decision.”
Note: This interview was recorded in mid-December, and the statistics regarding Superstorm Sandy relief were correct at that time.