Communication in crisis

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Communication is always important, of course, but it’s especially important in a crisis. There have been no posts here for a week or so because we’ve been dealing with our own crisis, but there was plenty of communication going on.

We live in East Tennessee, where six Red Cross shelters opened up because of people losing power or water during a weeklong battle with ice. Snow and freezing rain fell several times, and the temperature did not go above freezing for nearly a week.

We have a severely disabled daughter who requires 24-hour nursing care. Because of snow, ice, and well-below-freezing temperatures outside, our nurses were unable to reach us, so I (along with our son) took care of her for 48 hours by ourselves. Late Monday night, the power also went out.

We tried to go to a hotel Tuesday night, but all rooms were sold out. We then called the local Red Cross number, which referred us to a number in Knoxville. There we were told to go to a shelter on Middlebrook Pike–about 25 miles away. With road conditions so bad that dedicated nurses couldn’t reach us, we knew we could not manage to transport Hannah under such conditions. So we dug in.

My daughter’s medical equipment will run on battery backup, but batteries run down. Our regular Internet was out, and cell phones were running down as well, but we managed to keep enough “juice” in them to use a cell phone as a wifi hotspot and post about our situation on Facebook. A¬†friend and colleague rustled up a generator to recharge some of her equipment. The weather was getting worse, though, and the generator could not power enough heaters for the house.

Hannah’s nurses were able to reach us again Wednesday morning, but they were having difficulty taking care of her in the increasingly frigid environment, will fewer pieces of equipment working.

With interior temperatures dropping, someone on Facebook told us about a Red Cross shelter in our own community, within seven miles of us. The generator had given her equipment enough of a boost for us to reach the shelter on battery power. We loaded up and reached the shelter just as Hannah’s batteries were running out. The combination generator and shelter were truly a lifesaver!

Keeping our devices charged and connected to the Internet remained a priority, providing links to weather reports, connections to doctors, and letting friends and family know we were safe and well cared for.

On Wednesday evening, two television stations did interviews with us. I don’t know how long the stories will remain available, but you can see them for now here and here.

The power came back on Thursday, at which point the temperature inside the house was just 34 degrees Fahrenheit. It took two whole days to get the temperature back to normal (in 24 hours, interior temperatures were still only in the high 40s), and enough confidence in the power grid to take Hannah home (we didn’t want to come home prematurely, only to lose power again and have to move back to the shelter).

We finally got home today. It’s difficult to count all the ways that communication technology made a difference in this situation, even in lifesaving ways, but the thread ran throughout the whole experience. It all served not only to highlight the importance of communicating with others, but also to help us appreciate it that much more when we realized how much we take easy communication for granted. Facebook brought the collective wisdom of dozens of friends together, not to mention prayers and good thoughts. Complete strangers, connected through mutual friends, were marshaling resources to make sure Hannah’s life was saved. Cell technology connected us with those friends who don’t do social media.

This could all be a very different, tragic story without the continuing and ongoing connections and communication summarized here. (There’s a lot more to this story, after all.) Obviously, it’s not communication alone. The actions of dedicated, hard-working people kept Hannah alive, but they would not have even known of the need, nor could they have cooperated ¬†toward that end, if it had not been for the ways and means of coordinating information–communication.

Did you weather the storms as well? Right now, people in a nearby county are still without power, and new shelters have opened in their area. I hope they know about them, and can get to them, that they are as fortunate in this crisis as we were.

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Author: Donn King

Donn King works with individuals and organizations who want to forge top-notch communication skills to increase their influence and impact. He is associate professor of speech and journalism at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as a speaker and writer. His background includes ministry, newspaper, radio, small magazines and other publications, as well as co-authoring a textbook and blogging.