This has been a pretty rough month for the northeastern United States. It started innocently enough with some minor aftershocks from (of all things) an earthquake, but turned much worse with the rain and winds of Hurricane Irene, and the devastating flooding that followed soon after. The people of Pennsylvania, New York, and Vermont thought they were prepared. As it turned out, they weren’t.
It’s hard to blame someone for an anomaly. Earthquakes happen in California, not Virginia. Hurricanes are a yearly occurrence in Florida and North Carolina, but not Philadelphia and New York City. And while flash flooding and rising river waters aren’t uncommon to your average northeasterner, the levels reached last week were higher than any that have been recorded in 100 years. But after spending the past several days helping friends clean up and repair what was left of their homes and offices, I couldn’t help but wonder if we prepare for the wrong things.
If you have never seen the effects of a natural disaster, consider yourself lucky. The destruction is indescribable. You look at what remains after the winds have died down, after the waters have receded, or after the fires have been put out and you wonder if the place could ever come back. And yet it does. Slowly, but surely, all the physical pieces get rebuilt and restored. Because that is what we are prepared for. We have contractors and construction equipment and home improvement stores that help us put everything back to the way it was. Well, almost everything.
When our world stops, we forget that others continue on. While we are busy shoveling mud out of our basements, our bosses have no choice but to find some other employee who could do our work in the interim. While we are pulling up carpet and drying out files and equipment, our customers, clients and patients are turning to our competitors for the products and services they would normally get from us. That is when our relationships get tested. When the people we count on start comparing us to an alternative and seeing if the grass is really greener somewhere else. Not being prepared for that can be the most devastating thing of all.
It doesn't take a natural disaster for your most important relationships to experience what life would be like without you. They do it every day or hour your business is closed and are forced to go elsewhere. They do it when you are on vacation, off sick, or at a conference and have to deal with your backup. They do it when you don't show up, don't return their calls, and aren't available when they need you.
Keep in mind this one thing: there will always be some once-in-a-lifetime event that will cause your most important relationships to work with someone else. You won’t always know when it will happen and it may be completely out of your control. Just be prepared. Make sure that when someone needs to get along without you, the only thing they think about is when you will be back.