In America, we are obsessed with title, social status and material possessions, forever trying to keep up with the Trumps. Collecting as many, houses, cars and toys as possible. We somehow think that having money, power, a business title, fancy cars, houses and technology will make us immune to mother nature, but it is we who are humbled in the face of a natural disaster. When a Southern Category 3 Hurricane rolls through town, the rising flood waters cause you and everyone in the area to act quickly and prepare for the 175mph winds, winds so powerful it chips the paint off of houses. You race to pack whatever belongings you can; irreplaceable family photo albums, your actual family, your grandmother who lives down the street, pets, goldfish, pet food, alcohol, board games, deck of cards, financial documents, laptop, emergency cooler, tampons, blankets, pillows, dvds for the kids, toys, diapers etc, and get EVERYTHING in your car as quickly as possible.
The problem is only so much will fit in your car. You have no other choice but to leave behind all the valuables you work so hard to maintain and pay for. As you go for the Guiness book of World Records in 'car stuffing,' using every inch of free space in a vehicle to turn it into a portable home, you are praying to the heavens above that you have a legitimate insurance carrier, just in case your real home is destroyed by rain, wind and water. In confronting mother nature, there is no time for ego, second guessing, arguments or delay. You hustle to meet one goal: prepare your family and house for disaster, secure the fortress or evacuate and get to safety. If a mandatory evacuation is required, it is not uncommon to reluctantly drive off to a safer place because of attachments to your home and possessions. However as you do drive off, the strangest feeling occurs when you look in the rearview mirror. You have an ephipany about what is truly valuable in your life- it is now all stuffed tightly in your car and you cannot help but smirk when you realize how much you really need to survive.
The laughter ensues when you and your family begin to discuss, as you drive down the highway, how natural disasters have a subtle way of reminding us that technology don't mean diddly poo if it's wet, submerged under ten feet of water and broken. What really matters is the survival of the people we love and the well being of the people in our community. Then we begin to get excited about the upcoming Hurricane Party waiting for us at our safety destination point. A Hurricane Party is when a bunch of strangers from all over the south are thrown together in one location due to a natural disaster; a shelter, a hotel, the home of so and so- a friend of friend of a cousin etc - someone nice enough to open their doors to strangers. No matter where your final stopping point is, in the south we have a spoken community Hurricane prayer, "If we go out. We are going out in style and having one hell of a good time doing it. Amen. " Bust out the glasses, board games and cards cause' it is time for southern style, Midnight Margaritas.
New Orleans, however was not such a fortunate Hurricane Party. The Bush administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 has been lambasted by both parties' presidential candidates. Republican John McCain has called the response shameful, and Obama regularly blasts President Bush by telling reporters, "It wasn't last time, and hopefully we've learned from that tragedy."
When Hurricane Katrina devastated the state of Louisiana and altered the State of Texas, it also changed my perspective of life and Human Resource Management. During Hurricane Katrina I was working for Hilton Hotels in Human Resources. Our hotel was located between both the Astrodome and the George R. Brown Convention Center, where all those effected by the storm came for refuge and a glimmer of hope.
The Corporate Office at Hilton was extremely wrapped up in political read tape due to the loss of property and man power, our Senior Executives were busy crunching numbers of profit and loss while the staff in Texas was literally in the middle of the storm offering complete strangers as much help as we could. Outside of the office, my mother and I spent time volunteering in the American Red Cross shelters. When we were not at the George R. Brown Convention Center or the Astrodome looking for employees who had either been killed, displaced or relocated by the storm, we were helping other families effected by Katrina.
During business hours, many of the victims from the flood would fill my office looking for work or they would come for career counseling. I still cannot recall the exact number of grown men who sat in the chair in my office and broke down in tears because they had lost everything they owned, their bank accounts frozen and rescue efforts from the storm had seperated them from their families. Many had no idea whether or not there loved ones were alive or dead. You could not help but feel compassion for people whose lives had been completely demolished; homes destroyed, jobs and companies washed away, bank accounts and assets frozen, families searching for loved ones seperated by tragedy and delayed rescue efforts.
Hurricane Katrina taught me a new, more intimate philosophy of Human Resources that I refer to as walking the 'Green Mile.' Yes, it is a line taken from the actual movie when Tom Hanks informs his prison guards, " When walking the prisoners down the green mile, always treat them with respect because you never know when they are going to break." Why on earth you might wonder, did that one line have such a profound effect on me. It was because I learned that our job titles mean little in the face of tragedy, a paycheck is just a paycheck and ethics in business and in how you are showing up in the world matters. Anyone can be a clock watcher and walk out the door when the clock strikes five but compassion is a character trait not written in a job decription. My own personal committment to every single person who walked through my Human Resources door was to treat them with respect, decency and kindness no matter how busy our office was. I knew that some of the people walking through our door were exhausted, hopeless and heart broken.
Sometimes when employees are under extreme pressure, their fuses can get short but being rude to someone in need, poor customer service or a bad attitude by anyone on our staff could send a Katrina refugee over the edge. Our job title and salary meant little in comparison to treating a fellow human being with compassion and kindness, it was the very least we could do. Anyone effected by the storm who came to our Human Resource office for help or work would be assisted to the best of our ability, and if we did not have jobs available we would connect them with an agency, service, or someone who could help them improve their life situation.
The difficulty within Human Resources did not come from our willingness to lend a helping hand, it came from a Corporate Agenda to lock down on emergency spending. Hilton Hotels was required by FEMA to open the hotel doors to anyone with a federal aid housing voucher for a minimum of fourteen days. You would think that a Billion Dollar Corporation, would not have a problem with such a procedure but it did. Hilton Hotels opened their doors alright, begrudgingly to employees effected by Katrina for a maximum of seven days, then they were required to vacate the premisis. The General Manager of our hotel, Mr. Greedy did not want to cooperate at all, which I thought was odd since about two hundred of our rooms remained vacant on any given night. Even more suprising was the fact that I had employees complain to me about not receiving any assistance from Hilton. They had heard Hilton Hotels had started an employee assistance fund and was collecting millions of dollars of donations from associates outside of the areas effected by the Hurricane. Unfortunately, they had not received any aid. It took about a month before Hilton finally released the aid vouchers for Hurricane Victims, of course there was a little catch, the employees who needed financial assistance could not be living in a shelter, they had to be staying in a Hilton Hotel. Well most of our employees were living in the shelters. Luckily, after a few employees complained to Corporate Office about the invisible vouchers, suddenly, they were available to any employee staying in a Hilton hotel or a shelter.
During Hurrican Katrina we also had to relocate employees for work in other cities outside of New Orleans, and this was costly. For example, if an employee was staying in a shelter in Alabama and a job vaccancy was available in California, it was my job to transmit the appropriate paperwork to Corporate and put them on a plane to begin working immediately. The process was running smoothly until I received a frantic phone call from one of our associates living in the Astrodome. Tasha* was staying in the shelter with her children. She was so upset while speaking to me that her words blurred together and I literally had to ask her to breathe- to take a few deep breaths so I could understand her.
Slowly, Tasha began to explain her situation to me. When the Category 5 Hurricane struck New Orleans, the flood waters began to rise and her husband rescued her and her children, bringing them all to safety. Then he left to help a disabled neighbor and that was the last time she had seen him. Through her tears she begged me to help find him, she just wanted to know if he was alive or not. I told her that I would do my best to find him. She also explained to me that she was in good health and shared that her two children were in the shelter with her; her oldest son was also doing well but her youngest child had fallen ill and was in the medical department for supervision. Before hanging up, she left me with a voice mail code, a simple feature the American Red Cross shelter had provided her with so she could at least receive voice mails. Speaking with her reminded me of how small things like communication, can so easily be taken for granted.
Immediately I began making a few phone calls to the shelter to see if we could find her husband. Then I started searching for the database listing of people admitted into shelters nationwide the American Red Cross had already processed. After four hours of searching, Bingo, there was the name of her husband, 'Mr. Lyons*' at a shelter in Dallas. I smiled and called the number listed for the shelter. A man picked up, I asked for Mr. Lyons by name but he said the shelter was overcrowded and her husband would have to be found. I left my number so he could call me back.
The next afternoon while running around the office, I received a phone call from Mr. Lyons. His voice was shaky as he introduced himself, it was obvious he was unsure as to what news he would receive about his wife and family. "Hello. This is Mr. Lyons, is.......is......um.....my family... alright?" "Yes, sir. Your wife and children are safe." Immediately Mr. Lyons began sobbing on the phone, " Oh... Thank God!!! Thank God!!!"
" They are at a shelter in the Astrodome and your wife and oldest son are well but your youngest son is sick in medic, although he is stable. " He started to cry and I gave him a few minutes to compose himself, " How can I see them? Our...our shelter is being dispersed tomorrow morning. We are supposed to be sent to different shelters, one is in Los Angelas, the other is up north somewhere." " Let me see what arrangements I can make for you and your family. I will call you by 6pm today, be waiting for my call. " "Ok. I will."
Next, I called Mrs. Lyons at the Astrodome and left a message on her voice mail. She returned my call within the hour, " Well, did you hear any news, did you find him?"
" Yes, I found Mr. Lyons. He is alive and safe at shelter in Dallas." Clunk. The phone hit the floor as screams echoed, "My husband is alive!!! He is alive!!!" Then the sound of deep soul cries; cries of joy, cries of comfort, all combined with tears of relief. The phone shuffled a bit, it was the voice of a little boy, " My daddy...sniffles...he is ok." "Yes sweety, your daddy is ok." Mrs. Lyons grabbed the phone away from her son, " Thank you. Thank you so much. How...how can we be reunited? I heard Hilton was spending money relocating employees displaced by Katrina all over the country. The problem is since my youngest is sick, I cannot move because the doctors will not release him from medic. Do you think it would be possible for Hilton to bring him here? I explained to Ms. Lyons the situation with her husband shelter being dispersed, " Yes, Hilton is relocating employees to work at other hotels in the United States but I need to find out if corporate would be willing to transfer him. Let me get back to you in about an hour."
I thought moving Mr. Lyons would be a smooth process, since it would be cheaper to buy a plane ticket to relocate one person instead of three. Although Mrs. Lyons did have a special needs situation due to her illness, getting Hilton Corporate offices to cooperate was not so simple. I explained Mrs. Lyons situation to the Regional Director of Human Resources, she told me that "Hilton Corporate was not willing to pay for Mr. Lyons transfer since he was not an employee. If I wanted to get him transfered I would have to get my General Manager to pay for it." Great, I thought. Now I have to get help from Mr. Greedy, the same man who does not want to open the doors to Katrina refugees.
My boss Mrs. Shady, the Director of Human Resources happened to be coming out of her office to go to a meeting with our General Manager, Mr. Greedy as I was hanging up the phone. I remained hopeful, explained Mrs. Lyons situation to her and asked is she would please speak to our Mr. Greedy about whether or not it is possible for us to buy a plane or bus ticket to relocate Mr. Lyons from Dallas to Houston to be reunited with his family." Mrs. Shady, very much a Type A Corporate 'maintain the status quo without rocking the boat' doormat, humored me and left to go upstairs to her meeting.
About an hour later, I received a personal phone call from Mr. Greedy saying, " No, I will not buy Mr.Lyons a plane or a bus ticket. You will need to find another hotel closer to him in Dallas to pay for his transfer," click. Alright then- that is a big, fat no from our six figure earner. The bus ticket was about $50 dollars, the plane ticket was no more than $150. I just could not understand Mr. Greedy's lack of compassion, especially since our hotel spent more money in one week on office toner for the printer. What was one plane or bus ticket in comparison? It was alread five o'clock and I was runing out of time. So I made three phone calls to different Hilton Hotels in Dallas, two were General Managers that were unavailable, the third was another big, fat "no." Hmmm. It was fifteen minutes to six pm and I had to call both Mr. and Mrs. Lyons back with the news of, " I am sorry but our Billion Dollar International Hotel Corporation is too fucking cheap to buy you one ticket to reunite you with your family." After a few minutes of pondering the thought of sharing this unacceptable truth with the Lyons family....
I jumped on the Greyhound website and purchased Mr. Lyons bus ticket myself.
The very next day my mother picked up Mr. Lyons from the bus station, brought him to the George R. Brown Convention Center and escorted him inside. There, Mr. Lyons was joyfully reunited with his wife and two children.
Natural Disasters, they have a way of reminding of us of what is truly valuable in life; the people we love, the well being of our community and environment. We are all required at different times in our lives to make sacrifices; to screw Corporate Politics, Profit and Red Tape and to err on the side of Human Decency.... E Pluribus Unum.