Monday, November 19, 2012

Commentary – When Big Systems Fail


The date is July 11, 2011, around 05:10. I am at the very edge of consciousness, just prior to my internal body clock’s “GET THE HELL UP” alarm. Susie is still fully zonked from her mid-shift at the hospital, only been asleep for about 4 hours and the cat is curled at the corner of the bed. All is well with our early-morning world.

A whisper of a wind begins . . . . and becomes a rage!! In mere seconds the sound of snapping limbs and tree trunks shatters our morning. For only the 2nd or 3rd time we take refuge in our basement. This is prime tornado country, Iowa posts over 100 every year. In 30 years we’ve never been hit full on – ever. Close – yes. I actually drove under one once in one of their rain squalls – yet never a hit.

This is not a tornado. The wind is constant – not gusts. It is also increasing. We can see rain being blown through the caulked seams around our front windows – those facing directly into the wind. And still the wind gets stronger. 10 minutes, the wind builds . . . 15 minutes the wind builds . . . 20 minutes the wind seems to have peaked . . . . .

Suddenly . . . . complete silence . . . .

Later the decision is a straight line wind front. In our location we had about 10 minutes of 100 mph wind, 5 minutes of 120 mph wind and finally 5 minutes of 140 mph wind and then silence.

We gingerly climbed upstairs fully expecting to see roof or windows or doors missing – they were not. I quick peek outside showed most of our trees were missing or heavily damaged. Power was out – not a good sign for a 100+ forecast for the day, yet we were safe and secure. We headed back to bed.

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About 5 minutes later there’s a knock at the front door – our neighbors Dan and Brie (still in boxers and jammies) with a terribly concerned look on his face. “Are you two ok?” – the firefighter / EMT in his voice coming through loud and clear. We assured him we were – then we ask in return how they had faired. They were devastated – roof gone, large machine shed (50x80) a shambles in our woodlot. Still, no injuries.

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We are completely “tree locked” a couple hundred trees from the woodlot we all live in now block the roads. In our small community 3 miles away 70% of all trees now cover homes, yards and roads. Power is out for 10s of miles around. Grain bins that will store the 100,000s of bushels of corn and beans of the coming harvest are simply twisted metal. All major roads entering our small community are blocked by down power lines, farm equipment and destroyed buildings that are scattered around – travel is simply locked down.

It is at this point that you realize fully and completely – “Big Systems” Fail.

In this context “Big Systems” mean State and Federal Systems. They simply cannot marshal forces quickly enough to respond in any meaningful manner. For us, within an hour those of us in our woodlot who had chainsaws (read EVERYONE here) and a neighbor farmer with tractors half the size of my home simply attacked the problems. Roads were cleared (yes, county roads), driveways, trees were lifted from houses, our neighbors belongings were loaded into trailers loaned by friends and moved when possible . . . . and while the “Big Systems” were struggling to get up to speed – the “Little Systems” of friends and neighbors set about the job of real recovery . . . .

It took just over a week for power to be restored.  Dan and Brie moved into their new home 13 months later.  The replacement of our roof was completed 5 months after the storm.  Final recover of our community?  It will take generation to grow the thousands of beautiful Maple trees that lined our streets.  Recover is a work in progress – even after 18 months.

Fast Forward to yesterday - a breakfast after Mass and I’m sitting next to Ross, a onetime/shortime boyfriend of my daughter’s many years ago. She fixed him up with his now-wife, Crystal. They are surrounded by 3 pretty darn active kids. He works for the local power/gas company and had just returned from 2-weeks on Long Island – helping his “neighbors”. That’s just how Iowan’s think – you’re in trouble?? We’re on the way!!

I ask him how his trip was. “I’m glad I live in Iowa!!!” comes the response. And I listen to stories of mismanagement, dangerous short cuts, residents throwing debris and rotten food at utility workers as they do their best to help these folks out. He speaks in wonderment of piles of rubble that needs to be moved and people sitting around, staring at it, waiting for “the government” to come and fix it.

He looks me in the eye – a mix of sadness, disbelief, anger shows through – and says “Bill, it isn’t coming!”

“Big Systems” Fail – it is their nature. They are not designed to respond or manage the micro-issues; clean your driveway, pull the limbs off your home, scoop out the water, fix the windows . . . . that is best handled by the folks in the midst of the debris. That’s what shovels, rakes, wheelbarrows, chainsaws, axes, handsaws – just good old basic tools – are for. And, human muscle, human sweat, human effort, human work.

Yet, while the failure of “Big Systems” is easily seen and “explained” , it is seldom “fixed” . . . .  but it’s the stories of the failure of “Little Systems” – the people/community/groups of friends that is most disheartening to me.

From a personal defense POV, I teach the folks that come to my classes HELP IS NOT COMING!!!! YOU ARE THE ANSWER, YOU ARE YOUR ONLY DEFENDER!!! And so it is in the aftermath of Sandy. When a person looks in the mirror – they see the only person who is going to help them.

If we have truly lost the individual desire to be responsible for ourselves, to help ourselves, to dig our way out of disasters like Sandy . . . . if we have truly become a society of “the government will help me” and then we throw rotten food and trash at the folks that show up to lend a hand . . . . we are a lost nation.

“Big Systems” Fail – each and every day is minor and spectacular (Sandy, Katrina) ways.

You are a “Little System” – you can guard against total and complete societal  failure  –  you are our last defense . . . .



  1. I wish we had started prepping a while back instead of just now starting. It's worth it!

  2. I hear you. Yet "the basics", enough to hold you for a month or so, are pretty simple to lay in. I finally were invited to a friends home about 30 miles away for about 5 days. They had internet so I could get my business back on-line. Folks just don not realize how long a recovery can really take. Folks around Sandy are easily 6+ months out from a recovery - yet they seem clueless.

  3. Excellent, thought-provoking article. Thanks.

  4. Thats one of the things I love about the small-town mentality. Things get done, and neighbors actually talk and pitch in to help each other. We had some tornados in the DFW area this past spring, had one forming (but didn't drop) above our house at one point. The neighbor across the street and one door to the east had the top of his ....magnolia(?) tree break off due to winds. Soon as the winds died down enough, there were men from about three or four different houses that walked over to make sure the owner was okay, the roof wasn't in any immediate leaking damage, etc. The only thing I regret from that experience was that I only had an electric chainsaw to offer, not a gas-powered....because not two minutes after we all congregated around the tree, the transformer feeding my house, and houses one street over (never figured out how I got tied in to another street's power line) blew. So I was, essentially, useless at that point.

    1. Yep, I love small town because of just these instances. It's not even a question of whether someone will help - they just show up. As for you being useless w/o a gas powered chain saw - if your neighbors are like mine I suspect you were put to work!! :)

  5. Just my .02 here... One reason the little systems fail in Katrina/Sandy is that the 'expectation' that the government will fix it... Too much time on the teat, lack of community (many don't even know WHO their neighbors are), fear of looters (that whole self protection thing), and lack of personal responsibility... Y'all on the other hand are NOT dependent, KNOW that you've got to get it done, and have a sense of community (and KNOW your neighbors)... BIG difference!

  6. Agreed on all points - our national dependance on "government" is horrific. Sadly, with both Katrina and Sandy local officials - and especially in an election year) simply didn't want to appear weak. They over promised - to put it mildly. That seems to be an on-going issue yet today.

    I confess to be fortunate to live in and area and a community where everyone knows everyone and true help from a friend is only a phone call away. We used to be like this from shore to shore; the government seems to have done a great job of transfering our dependence to the government rather than neighbors, church or - heaven forbid - ourselves.

    Heavy sigh . . . .

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  8. Accidents are on a regular basis, and I found out that if such a breakup and a horrible thing occurs like this then it is going to pose a danger certainly. The storm has really affected the living beings as well as the other habitats with a danger to the properties and the buildings too. The storms are a common but the injuries that are caused are worthwhile a fact and there is just need to react to these situations and protect ourselves from that.Virginia personal injury lawyer