Leading While Losing It All

Two years ago, Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS) master’s graduate Rodney Andreasen lost everything to Hurricane Michael when the Category 5 hurricane made landfall on Florida’s Panhandle and then veered inland, rolling into his community in Jackson County as a Cat 4; the eye passed directly over his county.

Master’s alumnus Rodney Andreasen was honored by the Hurricane Governors Association.

For Andreasen, as Director of Jackson County Emergency Management, it was small consolation that he had predicted such consequences years ago. He had fine-tuned his reputation as a regional Cassandra by studying other events at home and around the country.  After completing his studies at CHDS, he took early warning to heart, citing the 9/11 Commission Report and Richard Clarke’s book, Warnings. His recurring theme was insufficient attention to warnings to avert disaster.

In 1997, with military retirement only one more assignment away, Rodney assumed responsibility at the NCO Academy, Keesler AFB, Biloxi, MS, for planning to safeguard priceless artifacts of Air Force history from the next storm. That next storm was Hurricane Katrina. Nevertheless, his planning paid off; all artifacts survived.

Prior to that, Rodney had noted Hurricane Hugo’s consequences for South Carolina in 1989. This combination of study and direct observation convinced him that his community would be in trouble if facing a strong Cat 2. Unfortunately, because his community had dodged numerous close calls, his warnings were perceived as exaggerated. Consequently, when Hurricane Michael raged through as a Cat 4, its damage proved staggering.

 

Pressing the Limits of Endurance

The devastation toggled between home and office. Nothing makes a more lasting impression than seeing debris flying outside through the screened and armored office window built to withstand severe impact. What made it worse was watching those same windows begin to leak water from the air pressure. His log cabin home, which was all wood on the interior and destined for an idyllic place to retire, fared worse. The doors blew in from over 100 MPH winds, over pressurizing the interior. This compromised the roof, opening it to flooding of the entire home’s interior. Research materials and family keepsakes were gone, but the Andreasen family held on. The property sold at a major loss. Meanwhile, the Andreasen’s moved in with relatives until they finally found a new home of their own in summer 2020.

Throughout this ordeal, Rodney and his team kept anticipating other emergencies, including thunderstorms and fire hazards posed by downed trees and uncleared debris. Theirs was not the luxury of focusing exclusively on recovery as more challenges kept coming.

 

A Motto Turned Battle Cry

As dark days became months, Rodney’s staff came to embrace a mantra he coined and repeatedly chanted when things looked bleak. Indeed, they liked it so much, his crew posted his motto on Rodney’s door: ONLY POSITIVE SPOKEN TODAY

Since the hurricane, Andreasen has become an invited speaker at the Florida Governor’s and National Hurricane conferences, where his first-hand insights contributed to his reputation in emergency management. At a West Palm Beach conference, however, one senior attendee impressed with his presentation lightened the mood by equating Andreasen’s appearances to impending catastrophe. Tongue-in-cheek, the executive implored, “Rodney, please don’t come to my county.”

 

Reflections on CHDS Experience

With two master’s degrees already to his credit, and several professional certifications, Andreasen would normally not have approached the Center for Homeland Defense and Security for yet another graduate degree. People made the difference.

First, a senior colleague from Florida Division of Emergency Management spoke glowingly of the program. The encouragement of CHDS Director of Communications Heather Issvoran when initially applying for the program, along with CHDS instructors Dave Brannan and Paul Smith, were priceless. So was his cohort (1003/1004), whose intellectual engagement rivaled the generosity which Heather and CHDS Senior Consultant David O’Keeffe mobilized to create a Go-Fund-Me account to give this emergency management professional the kind of relief he was accustomed to seeking out for others.

It went against the grain for Rodney to accept such largess, but Dave Brannan convinced him to do so. After all, Brannan was no stranger to enduring devastating loss of his own when a major fire struck his home only a year earlier.  The thoughtfulness flowing from what Rodney considers his CHDS family was as moving as it was helpful, and he continues to express the highest gratitude for colleagues who remembered him in his time of need.

 

On Balance

Today, Rodney soldiers on with renewed dedication. As he tells it, today’s emergency managers are visionaries. Their impact is growing. The proof is in how communities such as his own outgrew the “It’s not going to happen here” mindset. Today, the walls are coming down, and resiliency is on the rise.

If there is any advice Rodney can offer to benefit other survivor-responders, it is this:

“Stay the course in your choices. Regardless of the outcome, you will be the one everyone looks to for the answers. Realize that there will be those who will question your decisions and second guess your processes. In the end, you will be the one who makes the final decision and bears the burden of its consequences.”

Nor should one forget to build on the experience of getting it right. Rodney himself was questioned about turning down the use of a building in 2004 that he recognized was not fully rated for use as a shelter. Nevertheless, he stood firm despite withering criticism. Within 48 hours, an EF 2 tornado slammed that building into splinters and would have killed or injured anyone occupying it—if this emergency manager had not stood his ground (see attached photo). As a leader and a survivor, Rodney Andreasen continues to look to the sign hung on his door for the many dark days, still finding the right touch of inspiration in “Only Positive Spoken Today.”