Just as I was starting to settle into a new year, I was seized by this story on the radio.
It was about a kind of pattern: how people who dive into natural disaster recovery–helping to produce miracles while doing so, and being initially heralded as miracle workers by nearly everyone–seem to become, in the months of hard work and challenges that follow, scapegoats for everything that has not been achieved, and eventually a kind of public enemy.
These first responders often lose their jobs and the luster (if not more) on their reputations as the community around them frays, becomes less willing to follow anyone’s hopeful lead, the disillusion sets in, the naysayers step up, and fingers of blame get pointed.
In this particular story, the arc from celebrating the rescuers to demonizing them was navigated by a heartland community. “The fixes” were to schools destroyed by a deadly tornado and to improving the overall quality of education during rebuilding efforts in a small Missouri city. Their catastrophe always required group commitment, sacrifice and solidarity—not merely the efforts of a few first-responders—but the community that initially followed their lead and called them heroes melted into disappointment as their efforts fell short of its differing hopes, and many of their fellows eventually turned on them.
Somebody has to be to blame, you see. Surely the shortfalls that followed are not my fault, me and my neighbors, due to our failure to cohere, to bury our selfish interests, or to give our initial “heroes” the benefit of our doubts. The “mess as we see it” has to be the fault of the folks who jumped into the breach in the first place.
I almost said: foolishly jumped into the breach.
But what would saying this mean? If the most willing and most able of a community’s possible saviors hesitated–and then stepped back, shaking their heads–when they’d almost joined the rescue effort after an unprecedented weather event, an out-of-control wildfire, too much water or not enough?
What would it mean if good men and women decided that it wasn’t worth the inevitable death threats, the risks to their families and their own mental health, the possible loss of their jobs and reputations if they were to step up and respond to a physical calamity in their community when they might be in the best positions to do so?
Would saying “I pass” matter less if the calamity affected everyone’s health (like a pandemic) or the community’s ability to govern itself and fend off chaos (given its political divides)?
Political philosopher Edmund Burke famously said, in a phrase that’s almost become hackneyed in its repetition:
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [and women] to do nothing.
So what would it really mean if enough good men and women regularly decided that it wasn’t worth the personal costs “of their coming to the rescue” because of the likelihood that their own community would eventually turn on them in personally destructive ways?
When the going gets rough, it’s always easier to say “No” than to say “Yes,” and
to continuously put our support behind our initial “Yes.”
Of course, we’ve seen this movie before.
In recent history—which is written from the distance of a half-century or more—few leaders twinkle more brightly than Winston Churchill.
I fell in love with him and his leadership style all over again while I was reading Eric Larson’s recent book about the man behind-the-scenes at Dunkirk and the Blitz—a biographical sketch that was only possible because of newly accessible diaries that had been written by members of Churchill’s family and staff at the time. (Here’s a link to my discussion of that often delightful profile in “Two Books Worth Reading” from around a year and a half ago.)
Yet despite Churchill’s ultimately heroic efforts to step into a breach that had been created by flailing national leadership at the dawn of World War II, the British peoples’ gratitude wasn’t deep enough or its memory long enough to continue to back him after the War had been won, and more than his ego suffered as a consequence.
Churchill not only lost that post-War election, he became a scapegoat for those who bemoaned the cost in lives and sterling of the War effort, the loss of the British Empire, and once Victory in Europe was declared on VE Day, a “victory” that no longer tasted quite as sweet.
British voters didn’t give him a vote of confidence or help him to guide their country into peacetime. It’s hardly of a stretch to say that they blamed Churchill for everything that hadn’t gone the way that they would have preferred it.
We’re also seeing this movie today. Whatever you may think of Anthony Fauci (infectious disease doctor, media personality and CDC spokesman), ask yourselves: Does any 81-year old man really need daily death threats, to put his family in regular peril, to risk a long and hard-earned reputation for admitting when he’s wrong and helping his country stave off deadly viruses? In his fall from early hero to current villain in many eyes, what’s most amazing to me is that he hasn’t already said: “To hell with it.”
That’s also what grabbed my attention in the story I was hearing about Joplin Missouri. Looking back nearly a decade—from disaster in 2011, to interventions by the first responders, to celebrating these individuals as community heroes, and to the mental health toll that followed for so many of them as members of their community proceeded to tear them down—I was struck by what seemed to be the increasingly inevitable “life cycle” of hero-to-villain.
Both Churchill and Fauci would surely have identified with these Joplin officials who struggled mightily to help rebuild a mile-wide stretch of town that had been torn to shreds by a deadly, 200-mile-an-hour, so-called “multiple vortex” tornado—only to have too many of these locals eventually turn on them when their post-disaster hopes were frustrated by a lack of funds or a unity of purpose.
There’s one more thing that peaked my interest in this story. I’ve spent time in Joplin, Missouri so I felt that I knew at least something about this place and its people.
Some years ago, Joplin was ground zero in a multi-district securities matter that I was involved in as a lawyer. I was headquartered for a month of depositions in nearby Springfield (see The Simpsons) and made a kind of pilgrimage to nearby Joplin, where key players in the alleged investment scheme lived. The cases involved the buying and selling of interests in ethanol plants, ethanol is a by-product of corn, and there are cornfields nearly everywhere in these parts. At the time, I visited Joplin for its silo-full of ethanol entrepreneurs and accountants and because I wanted to know whether their “famous” barbeque was as good as everybody said it was. (“Yes,” to that!)
Anyway, the tornado clusters that hit Joplin several years later were devastating to this farming and light industrial community. They killed 158 people outright, injured more than 1100, and caused property damage totaling $2.8 billion, the highest in Missouri’s history.
Joplin’s loss and recovery are also relevant today because of the devastating series of tornados that ripped a 100-mile long path through Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri (just to the south-east of Joplin) less than a month ago. The life-cycles of hero-to-villain are likely just beginning to turn for the first-responders in those near-by communities.
Immediately after the Joplin tornado struck in 2011, those with the relevant job responsibilities there immediately stepped up and several were interviewed for the story that followed, including Bryan Wicklund (Joplin’s chief building official, who confronted how ill-prepared the community’s building standards had been); Keith Stammer (the City’s emergency management director who had to coordinate relief efforts and wanted to “think big” when rebuilding); and C.J Huff (the school superintendent who confronted serious damage to more than half of Joplin’s schools). Vicky Mieseler, the executive director of mental health clinics in Joplin, and Doug Walker, a clinical psychologist who travels worldwide helping communities struck by disaster, were also interviewed for this story.
Their accounts were as sad as they were striking, Huff’s (the school superintendant’s) story in particular.
Mieseler (the local mental health worker) recalled that the best thing that happened after the tornado struck in May was hearing Huff tell the community’s parents that students would be able to go back to school in August, only three months later. Given the extent of school building damage and the fact that many students and residents were homeless, his announcement had a stunning impact in countering the community’s despair.
Against the Herculean timeline he set for himself, Huff marshaled local resources and managed to re-open schools in August by building classrooms in abandoned big-box stores. During those early months, he describes himself as “a walking heart attack” as he tried to make the school year happen:
I gained about, gosh, 60 pounds, I think. I’m a stress eater. And we all have our coping mechanisms, and mine was ice cream and lots of coffee – lots of coffee and lots of ice cream.”
It made Huff a local hero, and he soon became a national one too, building on a reputation he’d earned before the tornado by helping to launch Bright Futures, an initiative that brought together the school district, local businesses, faith-based organizations and community members to help meet students’ most basic needs, an effort that had grown to 30 affiliates across several states.
During Huff’s heroic phase: President Obama honored him at a local graduation ceremony one year after the tornado, but as re-building continued and hit the inevitable potholes, his growing notoriety may have worked against him.
As the nitty-gritty of rebuilding Joplin’s schools continued, growing community push-back began to take a toll on Huff. Doug Morris (the disaster psychologist) says Huff became exhausted and distraught as locals began to fight his proposals, and ultimately him personally, at almost every turn.
Huff was demonized by some residents. He says he considered suicide….
Those attacks included a Change.org campaign to terminate his employment as school superintendant (the termination petition ultimately gained 486 signatures) and the platform became one of several sounding boards for his opponents. The comments posted there refused to give him any credit for his early accomplishments or much (if any) support for the school rebuilding efforts that he championed:
– T Carl: It’s time to take action. CJ Huff has performed gross misconduct in his role as Superintendent of our school system. He is a detriment to our kids, the parents of Joplin’s school children and the taxpayers of Joplin, MO.
– Brayden Provins: He’s the worst superintendent the school district has ever had. He’s ran the schools into the ground.
– J. Benifield: I have several grandchildren in the Joplin R-8 school district, with some BULLIED everyday. No one does anything about it and Mr. Huff seems to think there’s “no problem with bullying”….yes, yes there is. These kids don’t need all of this drama from Mr. Huff. His disrespect is deplorable. He needs to focus on the kids AND teachers. We CAN do better.
– Randy Long: He is all for himself and not the kids or the teachers.
Local mental health worker Miesler said Huff was hardly alone in experiencing these kinds of attacks from Joplin residents. “Several years after the tornado,” she said, “you started to see major change in leadership positions” across the community. In addition to Huff, who went on to resign of his own accord, this included the Joplin’s City Manager among many others.
Huff, who is now working as a disaster consultant, reports that “every single one of his [current] colleagues” is a former public official who was ousted from his or her role after responding to a local disaster. He went on to lament:
One of the things I learned is that when emotion and logic collide, emotion wins every time. It didn’t matter what we brought, whether it was data or subject matter experts. It didn’t matter.
And about these former public official and new co-workers, he said with a rueful laugh:
We call it the exclusive club that nobody wants to belong to.
Maybe Huff, the other former leaders in Joplin, and public officials elsewhere who had been ousted after responding to community disasters let their initial status as local heroes go to their heads and started to act arrogantly and unresponsively. But then again, maybe not. I couldn’t gather enough information for this post to know whether Joplin’s post-tornado leaders acted like heroes throughout or devolved into something far less than that. It’s certain that Huff and the others weren’t perfect.
But the two mental health experts who spoke in this story did so because they believed that the hero-to-villain life cycle after natural disasters is an increasingly common one today. It apparently happens almost everywhere, with considerable health consequences for the initially acclaimed rescuers. What these mental health experts didn’t say—and maybe didn’t have to—is that it’s not just those who step into the fray during natural disasters. Those who attempt to provide leadership in any kind of community crisis today are likely to face the same retribution and personal health consequences despite being celebrated in the early days as heroes.
No one should jump into the fray of an emergency who isn’t both willing and able to do so. But if you can do it and deep-down want to do it because of your abilities and the extent of your community’s need, will any reasonable person actually “jump in” and “take the lead” if they know what they’re probably “buying” for themselves and their families at the back-end?
Community members who lack these rescuer’s abilities, track records of service, courage and strength of character can turn on you in a flash, accusing you of serving yourself instead of them, of being incompetent, deplorable and worse. “Sticks and stones,” yes, but their daily assaults can be debilitating, especially when the stakes are high and fewer and fewer around you “seem to have your back.”
The shame, of course, is that good men and women—and maybe the best of them—will step back from any kind of crisis leadership, leaving it in the hands of the less able and less bold, or even to charlatans.
Perhaps this is what we are already seeing in those who stand for elected office, run our school boards, libraries, and other community organizations: far fewer good people than we need to do our most important public work, because we’re scaring them away before they even get involved.
It doesn’t have to be this way, but increasingly it seems to be.
This post was adapted from my January 9, 2022 newsletter. Newsletters are delivered to subscribers’ in-boxes every Sunday morning, and sometimes (but not always) I post the content from one of them here. You can subscribe and not miss any by leaving your email address in the column to the right.