I See You: An Open Letter from Emergency Managers to Those We Serve

Sawubona: the beautiful African greeting that literally means, “I see you, you are important to me and I value you.” It is the most common greeting of the Zulu tribe.

In context it can also mean, “We see you.” This is important, because while I write this on my behalf, I am certain it represents the views of a great many of my friends and colleagues from around the globe.

Sawubona. I see you.

This COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc in every corner of our society. The human cost in lives and health has been catastrophic. Our medical systems are drowning or bracing for the possibility. The social norms that connect us as a society, both locally and as a global community, are shredded. Our primary connectedness is now our disconnectedness as we isolate ourselves. We are alone, for the good of the whole.

The virus is moving quickly. So too are its brutal economic consequences.

Sawubona. I see you.

We fully recognize that saving society means shutting it down — along with the jobs that go with it. We know that we are trying to keep your business open by telling you to close its doors. To save schools, keeping students out.

New York, the city that never sleeps, is in a quiet slumber recuperating from a nightmare.

In Houston, where we take pride in our restaurants and in our oilrigs, the food is served to us on the curb and the price of crude is almost as deep in the ground as the black gold itself.

This truly is the upside down.

Sawubona. I see you.

Know that we do not make these decisions callously. We know the vast consequences and we take them with solemn seriousness. We accepted that responsibility as a profession, knowing that tough decisions would come. Some took an oath, a solemn promise invoking something divine or greater than ourselves as witness to our pledge and to whom be accountable.

This is new to all of us. Our decisions must be grounded in science. In this case, often guided by the counsel of experts more versed than us in public health and medicine, balancing what we know against what we do not.

In that balance, it is you and those we serve that matters most.

Sawubona. I see you.

I am honored to have served on command staff for four of our nation’s ten most devastating natural disasters. Now, for the greatest pandemic since 1918. That is just long enough to know that I am only an expert in the disasters I have faced. I am but a novice at this one and any other I will face in the future, be it the typical fire, flood, wildfire or a hurricane.

I also know that the difference between hubris and humility in any seasoned crisis leader at a time like this, is whether one is looking inward at the calamities they have stared down or looking out into the abyss. For those that recognize that we are always the David versus Goliath, it gives meaning and a face to the truly humble servant.

That is why our decisions must be clear-eyed and focused. You are that focus.

Sawubona. I see you.

We make decisions on data, instinct and experience with an eye on the horizon. We are paranoid, so we plan for the worst but we do not enter the fray of any disaster without planning for it to end — and the quickest way to get there.

We expect to be second-guessed. The Monday morning quarterback is our constant companion. We get things right. We get things wrong. We are paid by the officeholders we report to but we work for the residents we serve. Our job is to take credit for nothing and blame for everything. There is hardly ever a completely right or wrong choice.

In the most succinct terms, my job description is simple; take credit for nothing and blame for everything.

So, blame away. Second-guess us. Play Monday morning quarterback. Be polite about it, or not. Disagree. Challenge us. Demand justification. Be as vocal as you want. We are fine with it. We get it. We signed up for this and your feedback is part of the equation, but your safety is the total factor.

Sawubona. I see you.

We can sit in the confines of an Emergency Operations Center and make tough choices. We can be in the zone. Every complexity and nuance on the table. The outcome can be deliberate and calculated. That is our job; an eye on the horizon looking at what we can do right now to wrap this incident up as soon as possible.

Do not confuse that for not seeing you. It is exactly that way because we do. This is our community and our sacrifice, too. It is not that we are out of touch; compassion meets calculation.

Sawubona. We see you.

We derive no pleasure or thrill from this. If anything, our decisions are tortured ones — but we genuinely are striving for the right ones. Because, we see you.

We know you are wondering how you will pay the bills ahead and the ones that are past due, because it is the predicament of our friends and family.

We know you are wondering whether “furlough” will actually mean “laid off,” because it is happening to the families of those in the office next to us.

We see the miles-long lines at food distributions; you never expected to be in one and we never expected to have to do that here.

We see that those who greet us at our favorite places have gone from many helping hands to just one, and hope that the economy does not make it go none.

We see the caution in the otherwise cheerful eyes of those bravely taking care of us at the grocery stores.

We feel the pain of those separated from their houses of worship during one of the holiest seasons.

We share your brief moments of joy, too often overshadowed by stark realities:

Gratefully waiting well past time for your take out order in the rain at your favorite restaurant, only to flinch at overhearing two best friends in line learn that a grandparent has passed away — then the gut punch that one of their sisters thinks she is the one who spread the virus.

Sawubona. I see you.

We do not see only the hardships the struggles. We see that they affect you and they affect those we know and love. They affect us, because we are of this community.

We also see on the horizon a thriving community that will bounce back, even if it gets harder before it gets better. We see it because we are working tirelessly for it and we do not intend to fail. Failing you is not in our systems.

We see you as those we are here to serve and any of your critiques are fair game. Whether you see us handling this poorly, well or somewhere in between — please see us, too. At the very least see that you are the reason why we do what we do.

Sawubona. I see you.

Francisco Sanchez | @DisasterPIO

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