Six observations in response to an earthquake

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BLUF – When a disaster hits a community, a connected community will rise to assist one another.

On a normal bucket list of “Things to do/experience in Alaska”, you’ll find the usual: fishing, hunting, northern lights, North Pole, skiing, see a bear, see a moose, all that jazz. No what wasn’t on my list but has been checked? BE IN A 7.0 EARTHQUAKE. Yep, myself, my family, and my squadron were all fortunate enough to live through and 100% survive an earthquake. I’ve never been through a real-life natural disaster or recovery event, and luckily this one didn’t have an egregious amount of loss of life or property that was I was able to act and observe in various situations. Most if not all the dust has settled on the event, and I’ve had time to marinate on my thoughts and feelings that happened in the 48-72 hours that followed the event. Here are six observations in response to an earthquake:

People will check for their loved ones above all else – During the beginning of the chaos, almost everyone once in a safe position were on their phones looking for updates from their loved ones (including myself). As a Commander, I knew part of my responsibility to the team was to stay calm and immediately initiate accountability procedures. I gave orders to gain accountability, but never said they had to stay. There was an accompanying tsunami warning (which was turned off after an hour), but people started moving inland/north quickly. I told my flight commanders to take accountability but let personnel look for their loved ones safely and check in often. I was fortunate to know early my family was good to go (thanks to the awesome wifey), which allowed me to calmly lead my squadron towards safety.

Leadership needs information in plain English – I noticed after the first update for our wing commander that she was struggling to digest the information presented to her. She’s a very quick read, but the information presented was erratic, non-standardized, and buried in an information sharing process that was stuck in the 1900s (hyperlinks to shared drives…really?!). I took command and immediately told the team I was moving our collaboration platform to something dynamic and standardizing the way we provided functional updates. At first people were confused, but they caught in quickly and understood we “just needed to do better”, a phrase I said to all of them with a sense of urgency. The team responded and our wing commander was able to maintain composure and prepare her update for her boss (three star general). We dug ourselves out of our functional tribes and gave her actionable intel that we were all covering down on safety and operations. The positive momentum carried us through the weekend and continued through recovery actions.

The desire for basic human needs requires early management – An urgency to obtain survival items (water, gas, booze) was surmounting, and long lines began to form on the limited resources locations we had on base (commissary, BX, Express stores, gas stations). It was difficult to know what stores and services were up and running, but the team immediately began gathering information and funneling updated towards our Public Affairs team. Updates were provided via official social media channels, of which proved to be invaluable in overcoming rumors or fake reports. By sharing information quickly and often, crowds and lines were manageable and (to my knowledge) no major fights or altercations happened.

Everyone is watching…including adversaries – Wing leadership has been consistently focused on Message Discipline. Not only to our communities during earthquake response operations, but also to the nation and our adversaries. Near the front of every update was the text “JBER is Safe, Secure, and Ready!”. That text was used on purpose to inform the public that our combat capability was still available, even in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Managing the careful balance of community support and combat readiness was crucial, and the team at large covered down on our respective functional areas to ensure we were able to generate airpower at a moment’s notice to support national security objectives. Maintaining composure and remembering our duty to each other and our nation never skipped a beat.

People look to leadership for guidance…and then get out of their way – In between checking on facilities and checking with flight leadership, I spent a good amount of time in the Emergency Operations Center. The Director of the EOC (also one of the CE commanders) was in charge and directing actions across the whole team. At times he had individual conversations, and other times he ordered the attention of everyone to ensure unity of effort was retained. After he gave his guidance, people were on making calls and updating briefing products furiously. Teammates walked over to other functional areas to ensure updates matched across lanes. At times the Director had to give explicit directions, but in general I saw him provide enough guidance on getting after priorities and then consulted leadership along the way. I’ve been in exercise situations before, but needless to say I learned a lot from witnessing leadership at multiple levels work together to respond to leadership guidance.

People will want to help – The day after the earthquake, I accompanied our Mission Support Group commander to survey some of the more common areas on base: dining facilities, fitness facilities, BX, and Commissary. Assessments of damages weren’t too bad, and we focused on talking to everyone to see if they were ok mentally. Stories were shared about being scared (to include me), but the initial shock had more or less worn off. In addition, volunteer callouts began to happen to assist with clean up in some of the common areas. The more volunteers that showed up, the faster the services came back online. The Commissary was where we saw an outpouring of volunteers of all ages to assist in clean up. Volunteers followed the orders of the store manager, moving damaged products and cleaning aisles, shelves, and floors. And they did it with smiles! No one was really complaining about being assigned a specific duty, they just wanted to help. The rally of volunteers warmed my heart and supported my belief that people are inherently good. Well, at least when it comes to groceries, hahaha!


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