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Local Leadership during Earthquake

Written by: B. General (res) Avi Bachar


An earthquake is the world's most traumatic event human beings could possibly experience. An earthquake strikes at everything familiar in our daily lives, it occurs without early warning and strikes at every aspect of life, it impacts lives in large numbers, destroy homes which are people's primary source of security; and impacts all life systems known to us. A review of the latest earthquakes indicates that the main bulk of assistance was tended by people who were in the vicinity of the event. True, later on some kind of help arrived, either from the state or from neighboring countries, but the main burden was carried by the afflicted communities themselves as well as by the local authorities, some of which have difficulty functioning in their daily lives, much less in such a catastrophe.


We in Israel, cannot easily discuss such an event which we have (thank God) never experienced anything similar recently. We have experienced wars, we have experienced terrorist attacks, but how can these events be compared with an earthquake, the terrible scenario of which geologists present again and again? It is obviously such a horrible tragedy to deal with that anything we have ever gone through pales in the face of it. It is something completely different, and its full proportions cannot be fathomed. However, this is where the significance of the local leadership lies; it must act within each and every local authority, actually put the entire system in motion, so that the afflicted population could return to their routine lives as soon as possible, and the trauma is minimized as much as possible.


What does Leadership actually mean?

Leadership does not necessarily mean managing the event; this can very well be carried out by the authority's director and headquarters. Leadership means: leading the bulk of the processes which are going on simultaneously in every aspect and at all levels of life; being the right person at the right place; showing the population that you care about what is happening to them, that you are part of them; making them feel that all of us will eventually come out of the disaster strengthened, making them feel that someone out there cares for them, someone who could be trusted, someone who is a leader, the right person at the right time, the leader who will manage to pull them out of the depths of horror into which they had fallen.


We are taught to manage staff jobs, we are taught to run campaigns/battles and events. Leadership is indeed all that, but moreover, leadership deals with people's strength, its capability to motivate all people to take productive action. Leadership means comprehending the basic needs – water, electricity, food, shelter; but also something else beyond all these – making people believe that they can survive, caring for the individual. The ability to be with those people, to embrace them, to make them feel you are there with them and for them; that you are all in it together.

We are taught all about military leadership, how to motivate soldiers hiding in shelters to get up and confront the enemy and the shooting. This is indeed leadership at its best, but out there in the battlefield, in the war, there is a tangible enemy that could be hit and destroyed, there is a sense of victory after the fight and the attack. There is exultation. While here, in the midst of this local disaster there is no visible enemy, only injured, dead and missing family and neighbors, there is the stench of corpses and overflowing sewers, there is almost endless work to do without any kind of exultation. Here the leadership has to face an entirely different kind of challenge, harder and a thousand times more complex, but still possible and more importantly - binding.


Here are some instructive examples:


On September 11, 2001 after the collapse of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center, New York's mayor Giuliani, did not himself take charge of the event, or of what we are used to calling command and control. What he did was only to encourage the population; he understood that the city was undergoing a catastrophe and that the most important thing is to talk to the people. He talked to them about the terrible tragedy, explained that there were many casualties, among them some who were personally very close to him, but also suggested that they were all in it together and sure to overcome it; he instructed people what to say and what to do, grieved with the afflicted, and displayed general empathy which was very helpful to all.


On the other hand we saw the mayor of New Orleans, Mr. Ray Nagin, at the site of the Katrina destruction; we saw his mumblings, his failure to assume responsibility, his lack of understanding as to what leadership was; and looking for culprits to lay the blame on. It might be worthwhile mentioning that even at the drills which had been conducted in town to prepare for what was to happen, the mayor did not participate.


Both cities suffered heavy losses. But New York had leadership demonstrating that there was someone in charge of events, who lead the way and inspired hope.


What happened here in Israel during the last war ( July 2006) is also instructive. I wish to refer only to the local authorities' level. I do not believe there is much difference between people who live in Haifa, Naharyia, Aco, Carmiel, Shlomi, Maalot, or Safed and Kiryat Shmona. Nor is there a significant difference between the local authorities' employees in each of the towns I mentioned.

And still we can see that in some local townships the Municipality  staff stayed on and extended assistance to the population that acutely live in the shelters , without resorting at all to the services of national organizations. And then there were other townships which completely fell apart, requiring soldiers to take their place. The mayor did stay on, directing and guiding the action, but without his staff. Although there might have been some management skill here, there was no organizing, exciting leadership which can make people act even under stress and personal hazardous conditions.

None of the mayors in Israel had to face (and hopefully will never have to) a catastrophe the size of an earthquake. However we are practiced in handling smaller scale catastrophes, and we must learn from the experience of others. This is what Rudy Giuliani writes about in his book "Leadership": "All leaders are influenced by people they admire. Reading about them and learning about their growth inevitably enables a person who aspires to leadership to develop his own personal abilities. If he's lucky, he can learn from contemporary leaders, ask questions, observe them in private, and decide which of the leader's methods could succeed in completing his own style of growth. However, as much as it is imperative to learn from others, a significant part of a leader's approach should be formed by the raw material of his own life experience" – end of quote – and my addition is – a significant part of his personal characteristics and qualities brought along from his own origin as well.


Having studied international events, and also out of my own personal experience I wish to present some points for contemplation on the subject of leadership on a local level in case of an earthquake disaster.


  • A. A leader on a local level lacks the privilege of watching events from afar/above, receiving information and calmly weighing it as the head of a state/national apparatus would. The local leader must become involved in what goes on on the scene, not just indirectly involved, but actually being there, meeting people face to face, witnessing their worst trouble and distress, and preparing particularly for this purpose.
  • B. In the stages of preliminary preparations he should without hesitation integrate the citizens into his study of the threats, and moreover, of possible ways to minimize the damage in their closest environment. It has often been argued that the citizens should not be made familiar with the various threats because "they would panic". The truth is often just the opposite. Becoming exposed to a possible danger in addition to being instructed and taught how and what can be done, how the individual must prepare himself as well as how the surrounding community does so, all this makes people confident that they can prevail. Such a structured procedure enhances trust in the local leadership and creates a feeling of partnership in the struggle and the knowledge that there is a manager up there who shares the burden with them, prepares them and will eventually know how to handle a catastrophe if and when it occurs. Any attempt to suppress the threat and exclude the citizens from sharing it will neither make the threat go away nor will it make them totally ignorant of it; it will only enhance the feeling that no one is taking care, no one is preparing to face it. We find that it is this kind of behavior that leads to distrust in a leadership, which might cause them to distrust the local leadership in times of hardships.
  • C. It is imperative to present to the citizens the situation and solutions in every possible way, to act incessantly in order to recruit them to work for the benefit of the community; this kind of daily activity only strengthens the bond between the people within the community and their trust in the local leadership. These people will go on working even when the situation is at its worst, out of continuous commitment and loyalty towards the population, the community, their friends and the system.
  • D. International events must be studied, read and investigated in order to learn from their experience anything that could be relevant to our community. Because it is not enough to be motivated to act, one should also know how to act both on the location and on the leadership level.
  • E. We must know and remember that when an earthquake event strikes, especially on a scale similar to the one we are referring to, its impact will be on large areas, it will be difficult to transport outside/national help to the local authority/the afflicted community; it is possible also that such help may not get there at all, or may not be enough, certainly not the massive help we are used to receive in daily routine. In other words, the head of the local authority is left on his own!!! However, he must have the means to work with, the people who were trained ahead of time, and many volunteers who would be willing to do anything required, providing they are guided and instructed to do what is right and effective. The Municipality staff must know how to activate these people too, and the Mayor leadership will provide the motivating mechanism to act, as long as he do not expect "someone" from up there to come down and do the work for you!!!
  • F. After the event has occurred, professionals and managers must be allowed to work and act according to their training and instruction. The head of the local authority should be on site, see for himself what is happening, meet the people as they come out of the inferno of collapsed buildings, maybe after having left behind their most dearly beloved. He must be there with them, trying to find out what can be done to ease their suffering even beyond what is expected of them.
  • G. We are well aware that these people cannot be given everything they need, but they can be given the feeling that everything is being done to give them what is within the range of possibilities, that an honest effort is being made to provide their needs, and most of all that there is someone to talk to. It is also important to be with these people in their worst moments, including funerals and corpse identifications.
  • H. But one should also not forget those people who have not been directly hit, the rest of the local authority citizens. One must address the general public who needs to know what is really happening, what is being done to help their friends who are trapped in the stricken area. These people are the main source that can provide the necessary help, and they can and should be recruited to help the injured.
  • I. The local leader should also instruct the public as to what to do and what not. He should be assisted by the relevant professionals, the city engineer, maintenance staff, water, electricity, emergency department, municipal emergency services, the welfare and education departments, municipal volunteer system, etc. They must be instructed as to the existing dangerous areas: electricity, collapsed structures, open holes and hazardous buildings, but also informed regarding the way to volunteer, where to collect donations of all kinds, educational institutions, etc.
  • J. One must remember that our population is our "army" as well, and if we prepare them adequately there will be thousands of "soldiers" able to provide the best solutions in such difficult times. This is also the way to motivate more people to lend helping hand and make their own contributions. In order to do all this, a powerful local leadership is required, someone who is self confident and better yet, proficient and dependable.


I would like to sign off by quoting a passage written by Ehud Olmert (at the time the mayor of Jerusalem) about Rudy Giuliani's leadership, in his introduction to the Hebrew translation of his book "Leadership". I quote: "Shock and dismay had struck the citizen of New York and the entire world. It seemed that despair, loss of hope and total confusion were about to take over. And then – without a moment's delay, even before other people have come to their senses – Rudy took hold of the reigns and swept his fellow townsmen and fellow countrymen towards confrontation with pain, confusion and bewilderment. He knew how to inspire hope and joy. From the very first moment his figure showed up among the wreckage, the dust and the destruction. We saw him display strength and determination amidst the screaming and the pain, we saw him lead where many around him fell apart, we saw him comfort and support while many others where too helpless to act, we saw him support the grieving families who had lost their dearest of all, we saw him lead the urban-municipal systems to restore life to its normal course as soon as possible. We saw him keep a clear composed mind, hold out a helping hand, support, and caress, himself moved and moving others, make decisions, determined and inspiring confidence and a feeling that there is someone who could be trusted – this is leadership".

True, leadership is congenital, a gift with which not many have been blessed, but this divine gift alone is not enough to provide the necessary leadership qualities in times as difficult as during an earthquake; one must take the trouble to learn from the past, to constantly prepare the city systems even when it seems either unnecessary, or not promoting re-election, or not one of the first priorities of the municipality and the citizens, even then everything must be done to make sure that once a disaster occurs, the local leader can be at peace with himself and his God that he had done everything possible to deal with the catastrophe, including his personal preparation to meet the biggest challenge of his life.