Saturday, March 12, 2011

Lost in Translation: Getting out of Japan after the Earthquake

I’m sure that the recent earthquake in Japan affected each of us in some way; if for no other reason the loss of life and devastation, as shown in the remarkable video reports from Japan, was mind-blowing.  I think we all understand the power of a tsunami, and we have seen several recent examples, but the pictures from Japan displayed a new level of shock and awe for the world as to the power of natural hazards.

Here is the story of my day and how the quake impacted it.... but more importantly, it is a story of the power of our network.

I saw the earthquake alerts as I read my e-mail while waiting to board a plane.  I did not have much of an idea of the impact; but, since a tsunami was predicted, I certainly started thinking ahead to possible impacts on the US Pacific states and territories.  So with limited situational awareness, I was watching events unfold on my iPhone and wondering if we would be called to help.  As I took a morning flight and disconnected for a few hours, I reflected on the impact of similar events happening here in the states as it is only a matter of time before significant earthquakes and tsunamis impact us again.

When we landed, I had a lot of new e-mail to sort through along with plenty of text alerts.  the number of after shocks over 6.0 was unlike anything I had seen before.  There were lots of e-mails as should be expected.  Many of our team members were asking if we would deploy and let me know that they were available.  As some of you may know, we were eventually alerted for possible deployment under the FEMA Individual Assistance Program (as we manage a cadre of disaster response reservists).  As usual, soon after being asked to “stand up” we were told to “stand down” – an experience we went through with the Samoa and Haiti disasters. Alas, that is our lot as emergency management consultants.

Meanwhile, as I got to the hotel, I got a call from a private sector client that made the rest of my day interesting.  The CEO of the company and other corporate executives, were in Tokyo and trying desperately to get out.  They wanted our help - they were scheduled to fly out but could not get to the airport and security was becoming a concern.  After checking out of their hotel and going to the train station, only to find that they trains were not running, the group was stuck in Japan with no place to go, no place to stay, and no way out.

When I got the call, I was getting ready to attend a family dinner.  Nonetheless, our EOC (my mini Dell) sprung into action in our 4th floor office (my Hilton Garden Inn room). My internet connection was giving me fits so I contacted one of our crisis management consultants who went to work gathering intelligence on the situation. I called one of our security partners, one with international experience in security and executive protection, to see if they could help.  And, having traveled all day, I turned on the TV for the first time to see what the situation was. It was at that point that I started to get the full picture of what was happening in Japan.

Our network is our strength.  Fortunately, the security guy I contacted had worked in Japan, knew the lay of the land and, as is the norm with the large All Hands Consulting network, he “knew a guy” there.  (I think we only have one degree of separation from about 100,000 guys and gals all over the world now.)  Thanks to the growth of our network, we “know a guy” (or gal) to take care of just about any exigency.

In short order, albeit with a lot of e-mail, phone calls, and text messages (when the smart phones failed us), we were able to provide the latest information on the situation including travel advisories, flight status and transportation options.  Despite news reports that everything was shut down, we determined that flights were taking off and trains were running. However, ground transportation was tied up in knots.  We were able to provide the group with up-to-date information, checked their flight status, worked with the on options (helo, ground, train) as we went back and forth by text, e-mail and phone (despite being in meetings and restaurants). 

More importantly we were able to send a local ex-pat security “guy” to their hotel to meet with them and their Japanese hosts to review the options.  This was a small miracle as our security guy was in a two-hour meeting, the guy in Japan already had his hands full, and I was going out to dinner and had little or no signal (thanks AT&T).  Despite all of this, we worked past the distractions (and poor reception) and we were able to get them out of Tokyo safely. I enjoyed the opportunity to help someone out tremendously; however, my family did not feel the same way as I was outside trying to find a place with reception while dinner was being served. 

The good news is that, late last night, our client reported that they would make their flight after taking two trains to the airport.  It was nice to go to sleep knowing that we accomplished something for once! We are, along with our client, indebted to the professionals who dropped everything to help this group out of Japan.

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