How to be Perfect in Emergencies

You can’t appreciate the value of gracefulness under pressure until there’s pressure. Hurricane Frances created a certain amount of pressure for me . . . and I’m sorry to report that my grace tank was nearly empty.

I was marvelous in the beginning. Buoyed by a certainty that the storm would veer off its path and dissipate before reaching us (as most hurricanes do), I was happy-go-lucky, jocular, and even nonchalant. But when it became clear that I had to interrupt my regular writing schedule and put in two long days installing shutters, my mood shifted, like the wind, from breezy to wicked.

I yelled at Peter. I complained about Paul. I barked at Michael. I wasn’t a complete nightmare. I did work like a whipped mule for two 16-hour days helping various damsels in distress. And for every time a rough phrase passed through my lips, 10 were bitten back.

But if I had to give myself an overall grade, I’d mark me less than graceful. And I regret that. Paul was good, Peter was better, and Denise was positively saintly. Why couldn’t I be more like them?

Two reasons. I wasn’t prepared. And I didn’t think I needed to be.

Acting gracefully under pressure is all about planning for pressure in the first place. If you recognize that disaster can strike and you take reasonable measures to deal with it when it comes, you’ll have a much-better-than-even chance to be calm, cool, and collected when the challenges come. If I had the chance to do it again and the courage to do it right, I’d borrow clues from friends that were. And I’d be better prepared. Like my neighbors Ted and Lynn.

Ted, a retired builder who has given me nothing but good advice on just about everything over the years, had his house not just completely secured but also ready made for quick and easy conversion when the time demanded. Every window of his house had either hurricane-resistant glass or a shutter system that could be closed, from the inside, in a matter of seconds. The entire house was closed up and secure in about the time it took me to locate my toolboxes.

Instead of spending five hours with a crew of five banging and twisting and shoving and cursing, Ted and Lynn whipped everything together without even breaking a sweat. And it wasn’t just the pre-hurricane preparation that Ted and Lynn took care of. It was the post-storm work as well. The day after the hurricane passed, there were at least four trucks parked in front of their house, cutting up fallen branches, raking up scattered leaves, repairing little breakages, and dismantling and storing the shutter system.

It’s not hard to prepare yourself for possible calamities. First, figure out what you need to do. For most physical threats, like hurricanes, blizzards, and fires, there are published checklists of precautions you can take now, while everything is safe and secure. These lists would include things you should have (such as extra gasoline, water, batteries, etc.) as well as things you should do (record a new message on your cell phone, put up the shutters, etc.). You should also make a list of phone numbers you might need to call (police, utility services, hospitals, shelters, etc.) and another list of people you’ll want to contact after the event occurs (roofer, electrician, landscaper, plumber, etc.).

The purpose of being prepared is to lower, not raise, any feelings of anxiety you might have about possible problems. Knowing that you have the basics covered should give you a feeling of calm and confidence if and when the emergency occurs.

This is the opposite effect that perennial doom-and-gloomers achieve when they get involved with preparing for the worst. For them, the point of almost everything they do — from burying Kruggerands in their backyards to practicing with their semiautomatic machine guns — is to accelerate, exaggerate, and intensify the paranoiac feelings they harbor. If you’re addicted to such feelings, fine — but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

We’re talking about being calm under pressure. If you have taken the time to prepare yourself for potential problems, you’ll be less likely to get crazy when they arrive. Instead, you may well feel in control and ahead of the game. Use that feeling to fuel action. When others are in a bit of a panic about what to do and in what order, have the presence of mind to slow the discussion down for a short time while you ask questions, establish priorities, and then agree on tasks and responsibilities.

My preference to act first and ask questions later created a certain amount of unneeded tension and chaos during the emergency hours. I never totally lost it, I’m happy to say, but I was guilty of several short-tempered comments, none of which was of any help in finding solutions or motivating workers. I regretted my comments as soon as I made them. But that’s the thing about gracelessness — it’s essentially an error of manners. And bad manners can sometimes be excused but can never be forgotten.