Jan 2015 Bulletin cover
Volume 83 | Issue 1
January 2015

Lessons from the Storm

Kim Harrington, Georgia Institute of Technology

KimWe recently traded in our Chevrolet Volt. While I like cars, I rarely develop emotional attachments to them. However, the Volt was different; that car helped my husband and I survive the ice storm that hit Atlanta last winter.

One day, about this time last January in fact, in anticipation of poor weather, my husband picked me up early from Georgia Tech. Upon driving a few miles down the interstate, traffic slowed and then stopped completely as the icy conditions worsened. For the next 26 hours we were trapped in that vehicle, trying to get home. Through it all, the Volt handled well on ice, kept us warm, and allowed us to remain connected to the world from our section of the road. We kept it running the entire time, an act that elicited many questions from neighboring cars also stuck in overnight traffic. As I reflect on our Volt adventure, there are a few lessons I learned from the storm.

Leadership requires collaboration and integrative thinking.
Unfortunately, the tension between our governor and mayor was clear during televised news conferences. Road care was managed by jurisdiction. Only concerned with their particular pieces of the puzzle, they both failed to consider the benefit, or detriment, to the city at large. Metropolitan Atlanta has more than 6.2 million residents with many traversing city streets, state highways, and county roads during their commutes. For the residents, jurisdiction did not matter; coordinated efforts would have made a world of difference.

This is a great reminder for me on campus. When not linked organizationally, shared objectives and frequent communication with colleagues across campus require extra effort. However, the benefit is tremendous as effective communication, collaborative initiatives, and integrated planning help us all contribute to high-quality student life experiences. For students, our work should be seamless with little to no reference to reporting lines.

Empower your team, coach your front line, and enable others to act.
Located in midtown Atlanta, Georgia Tech cancelled classes for four consecutive days as the city waited out the storm. Roads were impassable, walking was difficult, and driving was treacherous. As a result, the professional staff was unable to make the journey to campus. Operated exclusively by our student team members, the student center opened as normal each day and served as a safe place for students to gather, study, and play. I commend our team for planning ahead, developing a strong group of students, and enabling them to act in our absence.

Leverage social media for push and pull communication.

Thanks to the exceptional fuel efficiency of the Chevy Volt, my husband and I were able to keep our mobile devices charged and remain current on weather shifts, check road conditions, and inform our family and friends during the ordeal. I credit my husband’s Facebook messaging with a local news correspondent and subsequent on-air interview for focused attention on our previously ignored section of highway. As a direct result of their interaction, resources were sent to our side of town, and we eventually began to move. The news correspondents’ willingness to engage through social media and provide assistance was a game-changer.

Every day the student center tweets information, posts Facebook updates about events, and shares videos and images. We certainly respond to questions and posts that warrant it; however, this experience has prompted me to pay closer attention to what our social media friends, followers, and visitors are also saying to and about us on Reddit, Yelp, and Foursquare. I have learned valuable insights through information pulled from these outlets.

Be prepared.

I am from Buffalo, and my husband is from the Philadelphia area; we are very familiar with winter weather. Like the rest of Atlanta, we were not prepared for this storm. Our vehicles were not stocked with the requisite water, blankets, cat litter, and shovels that can make a difference when stranded in ice and snow. Lesson learned; our winter kits are prepped and ready.

Kindness prevails.
The support and assistance that individuals and local businesses provided was heartwarming. Many stores remained open all night to welcome weary travelers, providing shelter from the storm and a warm place to rest. Individuals with four-wheelers took to the streets to rescue children from buses, provide emergency response support, distribute warm beverages, transport gasoline, and otherwise assist the thousands stranded across Atlanta. I was proud of my city.

Maintain a positive attitude and keep things in perspective.

After the third hour in the same spot, we realized that we were in for a long night. We settled in, established a rotating nap and “look out” schedule, and focused on the positive. After all, unlike many others that night, we were fortunate—our children and parents were safe, we had plenty of fuel in the Volt, and we were together. With two bags of chips and a Coke Zero between us, we kept the fear of what could happen at bay and made the best of a difficult situation.

Life lessons come to us in many forms, often through difficult situations. While I do not want to repeat the night spent on Interstate 285, I am grateful for the transferable takeaways and admittedly was more than a little sad to say goodbye to our Volt.