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Linn County is a neat rectangle cut from Midwest prairie in the eastern part of Iowa. It’s the second most populous county in the state, with 200,000 residents and the state’s largest manufacturing center. The Cedar River flows from the northwest to the southeast, cutting through Cedar Rapids, the county seat, on its way from Minnesota to the Iowa River and then the Mississippi.
Four times in the past 160 years, including during the great floods of 1993, the river has reached a flood level of 20 feet, 8 feet over the flood limit.
In summer 2008, the area was anticipating another big flood. Heavy winter snowfalls and an unusually wet and cool spring had left the area waterlogged. Experts were calling for flood levels of 22 feet. Instead, they got 31.
Linda Langston HKSEE 2007, one of three commissioners on the Linn County board of supervisors, remembers the near panic as the waters began to rise. A 400-bed jail, a hospital, small towns, and city neighborhoods had to be evacuated. County and city officials had to move their offices to a local community college.
And in the middle of all that, a fellow alumna of the 2007 Senior Executives in State and Local Government program called. Karyn Dest Harrington HKSEE 2007 was in the state attending a conference. Her employer, Coca Cola, was donating supplies to the community. But Harrington decided to visit Langston with a load of soda and snacks. It was a small gesture, but the only one she could make.
Langston remembers thanking her, feeling bad she had no time to give her, and then passing the food and drink along to volunteers filling sandbags. As the water rose, the offers of help from fellow HKSEE alumni also began to trickle and then pour in.
“I will need help, and I don’t even know what that help looks like,” Langston remembers telling fellow alumni. Those alumni helped Langston reconnect with her online Executive Education friends’ group when she couldn’t reach her computer and then reached out on her behalf to Harvard Kennedy School faculty.
On June 20th, Langston was meeting with government officials and business leaders. Much of the county was under water, including 1,300 square blocks, or 9.2 square miles, of Cedar Rapids.
Then the phone rang. It was Linda Kaboolian, public policy lecturer, faculty chair of the State and Local program.
“The day she called she said: ‘Here are some names, and they will be in touch with you, and here’s the program,’” Langston remembers. “And it was just one of those ‘Thank God!’ moments.”
While she also made use of other personal and professional networks, as well as her own extensive experience, in the midst of one of the largest natural disasters in the country’s history, Langston found herself turning often to those peers and mentors she had found and the invaluable lessons she had learned, at the Harvard Kennedy School. Practical and technical advice, friendship and sympathy, and lessons on leadership poured in from the school’s extensive network. And the school gained something beyond seeing an alum rise to the occasion; Linn County’s experience allowed researchers to study and learn important lessons about governance and recovery from disaster that are at the heart of its Acting in Time initiative.
Linn County, and in fact much of Iowa, is rich in what social scientists call “social capital,” roughly speaking, those threads between people and institutions that are woven together to form a strong social fabric. It is also no stranger to disasters, having experienced, and learned much from, the catastrophic 1993 floods. So when the water started to rise last summer, much had been done to prepare. Land use improvements helped minimize damage. Debris was removed quickly. And, remarkably, there were no deaths attributed to the flooding.
Still, six months after the flood, Cedar Rapids is a changed city. In the downtown area, there isn’t much left below the second floor of most buildings. In the city and the surrounding rural areas, many people have simply picked up and left to start a new life elsewhere. Langston estimates it will take at the minimum five years to return to normal.
And at the time of the flood, normal wasn’t even on the horizon.
Building peer networks is an important part of the State and Local program, one of the flagships of Harvard Kennedy School Executive Education. Allowing alumni to keep in touch, learn from one another, and even teach others are important aspects of the program’s success. Helping Langston would be a virtual case study in that.
“When the floods were happening we happened to be in the middle of the State and Local program,” Kaboolian remembers. “Langston literally had up to 12 feet of water in her office. So I asked the class, ‘What do you guys know about recovery from a disaster like this?’”
Quite a bit, it turned out. Several of the people in the course were managing infrastructure recovery in New Orleans. Other faculty members, such as Dutch Leonard, Julie Wilson, Henry Lee, and researchers working at the school such as Arietta Chakos MPA 2008 also sent along important technical information or helped connect Langston to experts in the field.
“In a situation like this, the last thing you’re thinking about is getting out the manual,” Kaboolian says.
Through Langston, Linn County received expertise in the seemingly small things that matter a lot in disaster recovery, like how you negotiate with the federal government for disaster assistance, how you put a value on what’s been lost, or how to maximize child protection when child care networks are broken.
Langston connected the experts sent her way to the appropriate people in county government. But despite the endless work hours, she remained mindful of taking a step back to reflect on the situation.
She constantly referred to Leadership on the Line by Harvard Kennedy School faculty members Marty Linsky, one of her teachers, and Ronald Heifetz, turning to the section on how a leader must be both on the dance floor and the balcony at the same time. (She bought copies for her colleagues too.)
As a former psychotherapist, she was particularly sensitive to the effect the crisis was having on herself and those around her. Not only were officials and disaster workers dealing with the unprecedented crisis, they were also dealing with personal difficulty (Langston’s own home was flooded). She has seen, months after the disaster first struck, some people around her falling apart.
“You’re consumed by [the crisis], you’re moving very fast, and the sheer, I almost would call it terror that you have about it does not allow you to see clearly,” she says of her experience.
Kaboolian, who talked often with Langston, said Langston in many ways personified the reflective leader they often discuss in the classroom.
“She’s a person in the world working on really hard public problems, but also asking: ‘Is what I’m doing contributing to or undermining the healthy dynamic of people working together to solve this problem?’” Kaboolian says.
That leadership has real consequences after a disaster, according to Kaboolian. When people have lost everything and the choice of rebuilding or pulling up stakes is actually at one’s disposal, the decision is often made quickly and based in part on the messages people receive from leaders.
“How do you instill energy and hope when they’re faced with this is one of the crucial leadership tests,” says Kaboolian.
Harvard Kennedy School has also been able to learn through the experience of Langston and Linn County.
Chakos, who works with Leonard on a post-disaster recovery project as part of Dean David Ellwood’s Acting in Time initiative and had also worked on earthquake preparedness as a city official in Berkeley, California, spoke often with Langston in the aftermath of the flood and visited in July.
“Cedar Rapids has become just what Dean Ellwood envisioned. How, just after the disaster impact, do you improve the resilience of the community and its ability to recover,” says Chakos. “It’s a living laboratory with regard to that initiative.”
Chakos, who as part of the project has worked with San Francisco studying that city’s earthquake preparedness, is connecting Linn County and San Francisco experts so they can compare notes.
She said the disaster has also helped underscore the importance of social and political dimensions in responding to disasters, as opposed to simply technical and practical solutions.
Langston could testify to the importance of connections. What is so terrifying to leaders about crises, says Professor Herman “Dutch” Leonard, is the “stark knowledge that they are beyond the playbook and truly on their own.”
“In moments like these, support networks — a sense that they are not completely alone — can be a crucial source of confidence and, therefore, of the capacity to invent the way forward.”
Originally published in the winter 2009 issue of the Harvard Kennedy School Bulletin.