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Leadership and Crisis Management
Episode 139th November 2022 • Leadership Forum: The Podcast • John Glenn College of Public Affairs, The Ohio State University
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As the past city manager of Sanibel Island, Florida, Judie Zimomra has great insight into a local government’s response to and recovery from crisis. On the heels of Hurricane Ian, Zimomra shares with us ways analyses of past crises and efficient use of modern technology enable stronger preparation and response. Other considerations toward a faster recovery, she says: competent local government, solid and talented employees, and proper disaster education and information dissemination for the public.  

Transcripts

Trevor Brown 0:04

Welcome to the podcast Leadership Forum conversation with leaders who serve the public good. My name is Trevor Brown, and I'm privileged to serve as Dean of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University, where we aspire to fulfill a simple phrase that Senator Glenn used to describe what we do, inspire citizenship and develop leadership. I also have the honor of serving as the host of this conversation series. So welcome to a thoughtful and reflective conversation about leadership. I'm joined today by a good friend of the college and my own Judy Zimomra, who formally served for for many many years as the city manager of Sanibel Island, Florida. She has since retired recently, and is now serving as a senior lecturer in the Glenn college offering insights and strategies for how to be a successful leader and manager to undergraduate and graduate students here in the college. So we are thrilled to have her as a part of of the team. She is also a proud alum of the Glenn college graduate of our MPA program from from years past. But Judy is also a return visitor to this conversation. In the height of the pandemic, she shared with us how Sanibel was managing the pandemic and how she as a leader was navigating that environment. Today, sadly, we have her returning for a conversation also about managing in crisis. But this time after a natural disaster hurricane Ian that has struck Sanibel, Florida. And even though Judy is no longer the city manager there, she is very much connected to that community, and has been obviously as we all have struck and horrified by the destruction of that hurricane, but also has to keep that clear head and help us think through how do we manage moving forward? How do we rebuild and re envision what what a community like that could be after the sheer destruction of a natural disaster? So Judy, thanks for joining us today. I know our listeners will be really, really interested to hear what you have to say about what's going on. And we'll do our conversation in the first part, just sort of what's happening in Sanibel right now. And then the second half will be sort of more forward looking around. How does one manage and plan and prepare, but then recover from from a crisis like this? So tell us to start the full damage of hurricane in it's not yet we don't know. There's still a lot to know and learn. But what's the initial extent of the damage from from the storm?

Judy Zimomra 3:02

Well, typically when you look at disasters and storms, the first thing you look at are fatalities. And unfortunately, Hurricane Ian the total fatalities at this point that have been attributed to this storm are over 119 fatalities, which is significant. There still remains some people unaccounted for but the majority of persons have either been accounted for or identified as a fatality. The majority of deaths from this storm a little different than many hurricanes, it's from drowning is the cause of death, according to the medical examiner, and that's because of the significant storm surge that was accompanied this storm. Hurricanes bring two types of destruction with them. One is wind and one is potentially storm surge. Typically wind is the most significant damage. But in hurricane Ian the much feared storm surge did arrive with this storm. The hardest hit area is Lee County. And for those not familiar with the county structure in Florida, that includes many cities that people from the Midwest travel to and use as a tourist or even a winter home. And those are the cities of Fort Myers, Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel, Bonita, Cape Coral, are all located in Lee County and just in Lee County for 61 of those fatalities. As far as economic damage. This storm may end up being the single largest economic hit from a storm it may even exceed Katrina when the final calculations are done. At this time, the estimates are somewhere in the 67 to $84 billion range. But typically those numbers go up significantly as the true cost of the damage is found as you open up buildings built as industry lose inventory, that sort of thing. So the initial flyover estimates and after the first week or two they were in the 64 to 87 billion but that I anticipate will increase significantly

Trevor Brown 5:10

That's horrific and and thank you for sharing that contextual detail you describe the storms impacts sort of writ large let's localize this a little bit to Sanibel the place that is near and dear to you you've been through storms before on Sanibel how does how does hurricane Ian compare to past storms that you experienced as city manager when when you served for Sanibel?

Judy Zimomra 5:37

six foot range, but many many:

Trevor Brown 7:04

So a little bit more context. So I had read. I can't remember where I read this, but I had read that some of the forbearers of Sanibel, previous mayor's had really seen the destruction of previous storms and other parts of the world gulf coast of Texas and other places and had said for Sanibel to survive in this kind of environment. We need to really invest in our building codes to make them storm proof if it's simply storm resilient. But that's not true for all of Florida and they drew a comparison between Fort Myers which is like a baseball throw away. And Sanibel. Do you have any sense of the storm the storm hit both places essentially simultaneously? What's the difference in the impact of the storm on a place like Fort Myers and Sanibel given that they prepare differently?

Judy Zimomra 8:02

Probably the best example would actually be a community called Fort Myers Beach. Okay, Myers Beach is a separate from the city of Fort Myers. Fort Myers Beach, similar to Sanibel is also a barrier island again, as you mentioned a literally a stone's throw from each other that they're visible each other, the wind appears to have been and the storm surge higher on Fort Myers Beach than even Sanibel. But there's a significant number of structures on Sanibel that at least were able to withstand the wind and surge better than Fort Myers Beach. Now the initial reviews seems to indicate several reasons for that. One, the age of many of the structures on Fort Myers Beach was older. And it doesn't necessarily mean that older that they were weaker in some cases they were and built prior to even the current Florida building codes which have been strengthened since Hurricane Andrew, for stronger resiliency. But also the other impact has been that with the force of the water, if you would envision a tabletop and someone taking their hand and just removing everything on a crowded tabletop. That's what Fort Myers Beach looks like today. There's areas where there were previously mobile home parks, or homes or even hotels, where today all that exists post storm, even before the debris was removed would be a concrete slab that was the original slab for that structure. There's no sign that there was ever a structure even in that location. on Sanibel. There is some of that, but of that a much greater number of structures actually stood. Interesting enough the fine arts just built recently and built to take into consideration a lot of the factors did very well during the storm on Sanibel. So what we see is those that were built to the codes, the more current code, the stronger codes. And a significant part of that is also enforcement of those codes, did better than the pre updated code structures. Definitely.

Trevor Brown:

So that that leads me to my next question is, and I know it's premature. We're still, as you rightly pointed out, gathering lots of information about the scale of the damage and the various causal factors of why certain things worked out the way they did, are there initial lessons learned from Hurricane Ian. And that you think will impact the way that Florida and other parts of the country prepare for disasters in the future?

Judy Zimomra:

Well, absolutely. It's a missed opportunity, if there's a disaster of any magnitude, by public administrators not to reflect and learn from those lessons and apply them in the future. That's a basic tenet of good public administration. I think there will be debates and discussions at every level of government from the local government to the federal government, regarding what's referred to in Florida, in most coastal communities build back what does the community look like? The disaster in in Ohio, this has come up in the past, for example, and nationally after tornadoes, or major floods along the Mississippi River, etc. What does build back look like? Well, some people think when they if they don't live in the area, they may be under the misimpression that right now you can build whatever you want. However you want in the coastal communities in Florida, and that's not the case on Sanibel, Fort Myers Beach or any community. And those regulations are enforced rather vigorously. The question should we'll be I believe, as the debate continues, is what should be permitted and constructed, particularly in areas with what FEMA and the National Flood program called repetitive losses? So if a structure has received terms damage payments in the past, and there's your P losses in that area, should it be allowed to be rebuilt? And will it be now buildings lost in this storm will probably not be impacted retroactively if they're currently allowed to rebuild? And there's layers and layers of regulations at the federal government, state government, local government, on when can you rebuild? What percentage of damage allows you to rebuild a grandfathered structure etc. But the question is, as we go forward, what type of structures should be allowed? Where should they be allowed to be built? When should they have to come down if they're damaged to a certain level, and what standards should be applied? And what's very, very important after these issues all Shakedown is who should bear the liability risk for the reconstruction in the insurance. There's a number of people this has been widely reported in the media recently, that in Florida, because of the high cost of flood insurance choose not to carry flood insurance. In now, if you have a mortgage, usually your lender requires flood insurance. Flood insurance is a federally funded program. It requires communities to meet certain standards for their residents to be able to buy flood insurance, the better their community adheres to the standard, the lower the cost for their residents to obtain flood insurance. But all flood insurance in Florida on the coastal areas, tends to be relatively expensive. Some people choose to absorb the risk and not take the flood insurance, then the question becomes if they are a total loss, who in what level of government should step in to provide that assistance? And I think in the future that will be debated.

Trevor Brown:

So let's, let's turn to your role as city manager, and you rightly pointed out there are multiple layers of government, FEMA, state, etc, that are involved in these conversations. But for you as city manager in the wake of an disaster like this, take us through the process you've gone through or you would counsel, the current city manager to go through to sort of triage and prioritize in that building back phase. What do you focus on first? And how do you decide that?

Judy Zimomra:

Well, let me make a couple of precursor statements one, the city of Sanibel is doing just a remarkable job on the response and recovery so far, and they're the city manager, the team, the elected officials, the public safety officials, public works all doing an excellent job. Before you get into reconstruction and redevelopment. I think you do have to step back and realize that it's the pre planning and hazard mitigation that you take prior to any type of store arm that are critical on how you're going to build back and recover. As you look at the if you really study their responses from several of the communities that were hit during this particular storm, you can see a distinct difference in the level of government competency prior to the storm in in their level of hurricane preparedness and disaster parent res, as they evacuated as they recover. And I'm sure that'll continue as they rebuild. And you've seen that in other communities around the country in the past, when it comes to rebuilding, there will be an emphasis, as there always is to build back as quickly as we can, with what we had. The question will be which communities either take a pause, or build back simultaneously, while reevaluating what changes should be made in those laws, etc. There have been other disasters. Katrina is a good example. Even hurricane Michael that four years ago hit the panhandle of Florida, where before it was over, there was some buyouts of properties that it was decided was a better direction to go, pay those owners to not rebuild in those areas, rather than building back. And you may long term see that I have not seen any discussion. There's a natural instinct, rightfully so, after this level of destruction, to quickly get back in and build back as quickly as you can. That's, you know, everybody, that's that's the rallying cry that makes it possible for people to get up every morning and you know, muck up their business or muck out their home is that I'm gonna rebuild.

Trevor Brown:

So that takes us into the world of human psychology here. And, you know, you've you've described a lot of the sort of processes and the steps and the organizations involved, but fundamentally, we're talking about people and their lives and their, their livelihood. And I want to get your thoughts on somebody who, if not part of your job description, I'm sure understanding the psychology of the residents that you served with was important. Let's start with the pre storm period when you know, there were calls for evacuation tell us what happened on Sanibel, or in parts of Florida about evacuation. And why Why didn't people leave? Why? Why didn't they?

Judy Zimomra:

Well, that was just in the month since the storm occurred. On my own study of it is showing its strong indication of a nexus between some of the changes that may be occurring due to climate change, as well as some changes in human behavior, and how those two over relate. So first, let's talk about climate change and what might be happening to what's called storm intensification. In the last decade, as Hurricane Michael hurricane Harvey, and now hurricane Ian have hit what they what we've seen, it's always been hard to predict where a hurricane will actually make landfall, and how it will intensify or slow down or get stronger as it comes closer to land. But those last three storms, there's been some scientific study of them. And what we're seeing is an increase in of intensification. So in the last 24 hours before a landfall, you see a significant increase in the predicted damage. That Harvey that hit Texas or Michael that hit the Panhandle was predicted to bring to bear on wherever it was going to lay in. So that's a factor that has that so far, the public has not, I don't think been grasping how much difference not only the path of the storm, but the intensification of the storm could increase in these last 24 hours, when it's the most critical to make your decision if you're going to move or not move. Number two, back in 2015, there was a major study that was publicized significantly, at least in their region that showed the single most challenging location to evacuate due to an emergency in the United States was Lee County, Florida. If you consider Florida to Peninsula Lee County's almost down to the southern tip of this the state and it's a long narrow stressed state with very few relatively north south major highway routes. So if you're thinking we're going to move a million people or nearly a million people or evacuate a city like Miami or an Orlando or now that Cape Coral and Fort Myers have grown so much. It is a major undertaking just to physically move that many people and you can't really go West, you're in the Gulf of Mexico, there's very little opportunity to go east, there's no option to go south, you're in the ocean. So the only direction you can evacuate those people is north and you need probably northern route if you think you're going to do that. So since then there's been more emphasis on a phrase called Shelter in Place, which means you stay where you're at. But you make sure you have five to seven days worth of food and water and the ability to sustain yourself, perhaps a generator. And more and more people have done that. But one of the problems with that is it's good for wind, but it's very difficult unless you're extremely high and in in an extremely strong building, to survive storm surge during that type of sheltering in place on if you're in a coastal area, you go a little bit inland, you're not in a mobile home, you're high enough, you might be able to do it, but you have to prepare properly. There's shelter options, the state of Florida and Lee County have made sheltering options much more friendly to citizens. 20 years ago, for example, you couldn't take a pet to the shelter, then initially, there were certain shelters that were pet friendly. Today, they there's a recognition that pets are considered family members, and all shelters in Lee County accept pets, for example. But many people still find shelters, an intimidating environment. And they're there, they feel that they're safer at home than sleeping in a shelter or living in a shelter even for a short time. Then also in Florida, you have a very high population of elderly people, it's no secret that it's a favorite place for retirees to live or move is Florida. And with the elderly population comes in an entire list of challenges. They maybe have physical mobility issues, medical issues that keep them on at home from home dialysis, to insulin dependency, mobility issues. I know that in the past, nationally, 24% of seniors felt it it would be a financial hardship or tremendous burden to be able to relocate for one week, as far as hotel, eating out, etc. So those are the those are some of the social aspects. We do know that people are often influenced by what their friends and neighbors are doing is behavior. So there is a domino effect, once a group, you know, you lean over the fence and you say, well, neighbor, Bob or neighbor Sue, are you all evacuating? Well, we're still considering it. But if you feel your decisions reinforced based on the behavior of your friends and neighbors, and those people that you agree with, or you know, in your own personal social circle. Another factor currently is there's more people who feel that they are a weather expert. 20 years ago, everybody didn't have the accurate forecast in their pocket. Now everybody can see the radar, everybody reads it, people read them differently. Some people will tell you, the best place to be is right where the storm is predicted to land because it never lands exactly where it's predicted. But what we've learned over and over again, that when you're in that cone of uncertainty, and I do think one of the changes you'll see will be an emphasis on trying to educate people more and more of what the term cone of uncertainty means. The National Hurricane predictors put out a cone saying that a hurricane might hit somewhere between Everglades City and Tampa. And as it gets closer, that cone gets more narrow, but the storm can hit on the edge of the cone. And people feel if they're not in the dead middle of the cone, and they're on the edge, that they are in a in the clear. And that's been proven over and over again these last few years that that is that's not the case. And you mentioned psychology about it. It's, you know, there's a term in psychology called normalcy bias. And that's the we have a bias that if we've left for storm in the past, and it never hit us that that's the normal trend. What's going to happen this time, and the people of Lee County have on occasion, moved to shelters and have evacuated or prepared to go stay, stay with friends in a higher drier location inland. And this storm totally turns to another direction or once or twice about 10 years ago became less intensified. And that impacts their future behavior. It shouldn't, because there's no less chance the same behavior is going to occur.

Trevor Brown:

So you mentioned just moments ago the role of technology in this case personal technology, most people will have access to a cell Phone or some other device? What What role is technology playing in in our preparedness and response to disasters both at the individual level, but also for someone in a position like you like yours? How were you relying on technology to make decisions and and guide residents about their behaviors?

Judy Zimomra:

Well, it just has increased tremendously. So for example, if you were going to have a meeting of all the local governments in the entire region or with the state headquarters, it 20 years ago, you would be looking at maybe a phone conference or trying to get all these people together in preparation. Now, you can do that as a zoom call, everybody gets the same information, it's ready to transmit, and you can get it out the ability to download and share. The damage assessment has been significant in this storm. within 24 hours, the county and the city had where residents could go online and see flyovers to see what their building look like post storm did they still have a roof was there water standing around their building, they were able to upload 1000s of damage assessments and have those at the fingertips. So you could be sitting in your home in Illinois, and see what's the status of at least the visual of the impact on my building and Fort Myers Beach or Fort Myers. That technology just a short time ago wasn't available. With this increase on reliance of technology. The one impact is that when people are right in that most impacted zone, they're in for at least a short period of time in a blackout. So people might be sending out messages. You know, this is where you can get help. Here's where you can get food. Here's how we can airlift you out. But if you are totally blacked out, you're not getting that information. Now, in the case of hurricane Ian, in they shuttled satellite communication they had to replace, bring in temporary cell phone towers, etc. But we're able to do that remarkably quick. It to be able to get messages and communication to those who did not evacuate or who needed immediate help and services. But it has changed dramatically the speed of how information be collected and disseminated.

Trevor Brown:

So as we pull this to a close, I got two more questions for you. The first is just more broadly about leadership and crisis. What What lessons have you learned and distilled from your experience and an observation of events like these about what it means to lead in a crisis?

Judy Zimomra:

Well, I I've said this, not just in my time in Florida, but I worked in Ohio for 22 years before relocating to work in Florida and had some disaster experience in the communities I worked in in Ohio too. And what I learned was, you need your A team every day, if you're going to respond effectively to disasters and emergencies. If you in my opinion, if you go into disasters and storms thinking my C and D employees will some how remarkably dust themselves off and step up to the challenge and become Superman and Superwoman. I haven't found that to be true. You're You're superstars rise to the occasion, your solid employees rise to the occasion. And unfortunately, the people that may be a cap on thinking they might become improve with guidance. That unfortunately, at least in my experience, that's never the experience that you find. So you need to have an A team every day, if you're going to be able to when you're doing the day to day up. You need an A team if you're going to respond to a disaster emergency. And I think a lot of managers found that out during the COVID as well in the pandemic that you need a solid team to manage in a disaster, what you can get by in normal times may not be adequate. The second thing is I don't think there's any place there's a current term, a lot of people are using a lot of studying the quiet quitters. I don't think there's a place in disaster response for the quiet quitters. The first responders you can't have the person of falling back who's supposed to climb through the collapsing building to evacuate senior citizens and you can't have the dispatchers that are getting overloaded calls, sit there and say, I'm just going to give my mediocre today. So in those fields, there's there does just aren't terms that exist in and shouldn't. And I think overall the lesson is the importance of having competent good local government and competent good government at every level is just critical. The public expects their government to be prepared to respond and I think the government the citizens deserve to have their government right Ready to respond and do well in these types of disasters, that to the turn to the base. If you cannot provide basic public safety, then you have to ask yourself, what is your purposes a local government or any level of government, in my opinion. So I think the need to have good partnerships with the other level governments, which you're seeing exercised to the best degree, I believe, right now in southwest Florida, is a critical part to being able to respond to a disaster.

Trevor Brown:

So Judy, last question. You are kindly and generously teaching a class for the Glenn college in the spring, a graduate level course, on disasters preparedness and response, give us a little preview? What are some of the key lessons from from Ian, and your past experience that you're going to be sharing with students and the participants in the class?

Judy Zimomra:

Well, so the class has not been touched been on the books, but it hasn't been taught for six years. So I'm spending some time updating the syllabus and the course content, and specifically the areas I'm looking at. And some of it is certainly driven by the storm, but was in the works beforehand, a new emphasis on the reliance on technology, the impact and utilization of top technology pre post disaster, the more study of the human behavior and human reaction to disasters, the predictions and the roles after one of the areas that I'm observing is the role of the media, the trust and confidence in not only government, but media in this disaster planning and predictions. As I evaluate some of the comments from people who have chosen not to evacuate this, the media always pops up the storms, they make it a big deal, etc. So we may have be having the confluence of the worst, less trust in government, less trust in the media. And then when you really need those two sources to get the message out, the public's more skeptical than they've ever been before. So what is the proper role of government? And where's that trust and confidence impacts? Climate change? And what the impact of climate changes has been on disasters? Is that a true trend? We need to be planning for this intensification that a greater role, and then one we haven't talked about today, but it's just critical on these responses is the role of nonprofits particularly be at the long term response, the initial feeding, sheltering, clothing, job opportunities, housing, for the victims of these types of storms, much of that not all of it, but much of it is provided by the nonprofits. They're flexible and nimble enough to be able to do that.

Trevor Brown:

Well, Judy, I'm thrilled that you're going to be teaching this class and sharing those lessons and covering those topics. And so thank you for your many, many years of service to the community of Sanibel, but now for disseminating those those lessons to that next generation of leaders who will go and serve in similar ways, but thanks for talking to me today and thanks for teaching our students.

Judy Zimomra:

And thank you for everything you do for our college.

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