Every crisis is made up of characters much like you experience in a play or novel. There are many character roles in a crisis response, and how they are played greatly influences how a crisis is remembered, who overcomes and who succumbs to the crisis. The story of Hurricane Harvey belongs to the Hero characters, but there are also some worthwhile crisis lessons from all four primary roles played in this disaster and in other crises.
In most crises, the role of the Antagonist typically falls to the individual or organization responsible for delivering a negative issue or event. (Note that delivering a crisis is not necessarily the equivalent of causing a crisis.) To survive a crisis, the Antagonist must respond quickly, be transparent, show remorse and present a strong plan of action to convince others that they are worthy of recovery. Think about Uber, right now they are attempting to show a plan of action to earn forgiveness for a culture that was revealed as sexist and corrupt. Chipotle is still struggling to prove that customers can trust the safety of their food.
In the case of Hurricane Harvey, the storm itself was the crisis Antagonist – a powerful, relentless, unforgiving, destructive and deadly force. He was the equivalent of Jessie James coming to town for a shoot out in the old west. Instead of bullets, Harvey came packing 51 feet of water he picked up in the Gulf of Mexico, tornadoes and 130 mile per hour winds. As people realized he was headed toward their towns, some scattered and most hid out in their homes. But, he came to make a name for himself and he did – Harvey is expected to rank among the costliest US natural disasters.
In a crisis, the Protagonist is the character responsible for handling the main problem. In the Harvey crisis, hundreds of local leaders across 54 drenched Texas counties served in the Protagonist role. These leaders ran the “mission control” of the crisis response: mayors, county judges, city managers, heads of law enforcement, water management officials, transportation officials, and others coordinated the response and kept the public updated on their progress and issues. Considering the magnitude of the crisis, these leaders appeared to work seamlessly and in great harmony – a sign of effective crisis planning and crisis leadership.
During a crisis, the Protagonist role can fall to a range of players, and it can even be the collective voice of society through social media; this happened earlier this year when a video went viral of a bloodied United Airlines passenger being extracted from a plane. The public outcry on social media forced United to immediately change its crisis response, communications and policies to solve the problem.
The Protagonist role can also be earned by the leader of the organization that delivers the crisis. The Antagonist leader can be transformed into the role of the Protagonist! This was the case when Canada’s Maple Leaf Foods delivered contaminated meat that killed 20 people. But, because of the thorough, sincere and empathetic crisis response of their CEO, Michael McCain, the Canadian Press honored him as “Business Newsmaker of the Year”. Consumer trust in the company also increased in the wake of that tragedy.
The Victims are the ones most impacted and suffer at the hands of the Antagonist. People from across the world have expressed amazement at the suffering of Harvey’s victims. The hurricane claimed at least 60 lives, devastated many businesses and left more than 185,000 residents homeless. Approximately 560,000 people have registered for FEMA assistance and more than 53,000 are still in hotels. Harvey destroyed infrastructure and also took a toll on livestock and wildlife; even deer and armadillos were rescued from the floodwaters.
The Heroes are those who take action to help the victims or stop a crisis from becoming worse. In many crises, an incident commander, first responders, community leaders, employees, a whistleblower or others may play this role. In the case of Hurricane Harvey, there were thousands of Heroes, but the ones with the most press coverage might be remembered more than others. Local and national news outlets featured Mattress Mac, the owner of a Houston furniture store dynasty, who became an instant Hero when he opened his stores as shelters for responders and victims. Popular Houston Texan football player, JJ Watt, has also earned Hero status, raising more than $20 million for victims so far.
During Harvey, social media became the Uber
or Lyft of crisis communications. Social media
connected riders with drivers, but these riders
were soaked and in harm’s way.
There are so many deserving Heroes in the story of Harvey, and at the top of that list are the thousands of citizen responders that raced to the flooded areas with boats, trucks and trailers to save the flood victims. On social media you saw people from small and big towns around the country loading up their U-hauls, 18-wheelers, boats and supplies and heading to Texas. During Harvey, social media became the Uber or Lyft of crisis communications. It connected riders with drivers, but these riders were soaked and in harm’s way. The 911 lines were overloaded, so ordinary people relayed distress calls via social media and directed citizen responders to the flood victims.
I would not wish Hurricane Harvey on anyone, but it was amazing to witness how everyday people came together to do something extraordinary in the face of adversity. The citizen responders and volunteers are the true Heroes of Hurricane Harvey!