Friday, April 16, 2021

‘Masters of Disaster’ by David Silverberg




“It was neither a peaceful nor an easy rebuilding, though.”

When I first picked up “Masters of Disaster: The Political and Leadership Lessons of America’s Greatest Disasters,” Hurricane Irma was not on anyone’s radar. The book, thick and daunting, sat on my bookshelf in my “To Be Read” pile until the day I had to evacuate. Then, this book, chronicling disasters and how the leaders responded to the events, became my bedtime stories over the nights to follow.

This book captures the stories of the Great Fire of Chicago, the San Francisco Earthquake, the Mississippi Flood of 1927, Hurricane Camille in 1969, the New York terrorist attacks of 2001, the California wildfires of 2007, Hurricane Katrina, and three separate blizzards. In each chapter, the disaster is retold as a perfect case study in emergency management. Leaders and lack of leadership dictated how well and how quickly each area recovered from the shock, loss, and destruction.



One section of particular interest to me was the Hurricane Camille chapter. The author documented the key players years before the actual hurricane, describing how they landed in their leadership positions and how they gained the necessary training to become experienced in emergency management. But more so, the way the leaders acted proved to give order and confidence to those seeking direction. Those leaders put the safety of their residents as their first priority, centralizing their message and establishing an immediate response protocol for after the storm.

While reading this book, and piecing together information through various social media platforms and posts, it becomes obvious how massive an undertaking it is to coordinate recovery efforts after such a calamity. Even with federal, state, and local governments and municipalities prioritizing the health and safety of the people, one fact remains consistent in times of crisis: the first responders will always be the people within the community. Because even with evacuations in place, there will be homeless in affected areas, people without the resources to leave, and others confident in their ability to weather the storm.

“Over time, as the science of weather prediction improved, authorities were able to mitigate the impact of hurricanes with timelier warnings and better preparations… Each generation seemed to need to learn anew just how deadly hurricanes could be.”

Silverberg uses straightforward words to express the facts of each event, peppered with colorful adjectives and adverbs to insert what must have amounted to his massive amounts of research. “The year 1969 was one of the most extraordinary in American history. It was as though all the currents present in American society came to a frothing, explosive head.”

In a section titled “What Went Right,” Silverberg details with a stunning analysis, “the striking elements in the response to Camille that went very well.” This is, perhaps, the most educational section of the book and my personal favorite, though there is a “Lessons Learned” section in the appendix. I’m not really a gripe-about-it kind of person, so when positivity is highlighted,

I’m drawn to it, and this section highlights exactly the kind of positive lessons learned that I think would benefit all leaders.

“In disasters, individuals make a difference, particularly when they’re in positions of responsibility.”

Camille’s successful recovery was a “testament to the power of individuals working on a local level to effectively prepare their communities for the worst emergencies.”

If I could recommend this book to every leader of every community that might ever experience a disaster – natural or manmade – I would.

On a personal note, I’d like to add that I was so impressed with the leaders on Marco Island and how they communicated the relevant information to us. I thought Governor Scott took his position behind the podium and created a sense of calm for many, in the face of hasty evacuations or limited shelter-in-place preparations. In the aftermath, other community leaders – citizens – stepped up to rebuild their neighborhoods. Realistically, I understand that many shortcomings with part of our local government were exposed, but I’m hopeful that the lessons learned here will better prepare everyone when dealing with future disasters. Perhaps Silverberg’s book is a step in the right direction.

I’ll end with this quote: “Neighbors will rally to assist each other, people will make incredible efforts to help those in distress and there are acts of astonishing heroism.” I witnessed this first-hand on Marco Island. So many amazing people rushed forward to volunteer their time and talents, while many others – local and abroad – donated money to expedite the recovery efforts. The world needs more love, but this was a devastating way to display what a wonderful community we have here in Southwest Florida.

David Silverberg is a veteran Washington, D.C. journalist and editor. On September 11, 2001, he was serving as managing editor of The Hill newspaper, which covers Congress, when, from a vantage point atop The Hill’s office building, he watched the Pentagon burn as a result of that day’s terrorist attack and the White House and Treasury Department staffs evacuate their buildings. He subsequently devoted himself to matters related to homeland security and in 2004 was the founding editor of the monthly magazine Homeland Security Today, which won 18 awards for editorial excellence from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. Silverberg is the first-ever recipient of the society’s “Journalism That Matters” award. He’s also the author of “Congress For Dummies,” part of the widely-known Dummies series.

As always, thanks for your time!

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Marisa Cleveland loves to laugh, hates to cry, and does both often. She has a master’s degree from George Mason University and joined The Seymour Agency after she ended an eightyear career teaching students language arts, grades 6-12. Previous to teaching, she worked as an assistant director for a graduate school in Washington, D.C., before settling in Southwest Florida over a decade ago. As a former gymnast, cheerleader, and dancer, she understands the importance of balance, and she encourages everyone to stay flexible. Cleveland is a Leadership Marco 2015 alum, and she loves connecting with other readers through social media. Though she’s a painfully private introvert, she can be reached through her website: or follow her journey on Twitter: @marisacleveland.

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